Tornado deaths to rise in USA unless radical changes to warning systems are made - Study

Source(s): University of South Wales
Photo by Flickr user NOAA Photo Library CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/8EPwvq
Photo by Flickr user NOAA Photo Library CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/8EPwvq

By Richard Stokoe

There will be a rise in unnecessary tornado deaths if local and federal government in America continue to rely on old fashioned warning systems and this trend in fatalities will continue for years to come unless immediate changes are made. These are the stark findings of a major year-long study into why people are still dying in twisters across America that has just been published. 

As the 2016 tornado season gets into full swing, the study, "Putting people at the center of tornado warnings: how perception analysis can cut fatalities, into how to cut twister fatalities" analysed historic data, each of the current early warning systems used and interviewed and surveyed more than 500 people. The peer reviewed findings, published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, showed that, overall:

  • Double the number of people have died in tornadoes than in hurricanes and earthquakes combined since 1950, yet despite this, research into how to prevent deaths has been significantly less.
  • For the first time since World War II, the number and proportion of people dying in America from tornadoes is increasing. The current numbers of deaths is now as high as the 1960’s and more than twice as bad as in the 1980’s .
  • The main warning system used by the authorities – sirens -  are not believed when they go off with many people not bothering to seek shelter as they felt that the authorities ‘cried wolf’ with their overuse. Additionally, more than three in four people did not understand where they could be heard or were confused about what they should do when the alert sounds.
  • The variations in when sirens were tested from county to county caused unnecessary confusion and increased the likelihood people would not seek shelter when genuine alerts were triggered.
  • National Weather Service radios, a cornerstone of the alerting systems and heavily relied on by officials for more than 40 years, was owned by very few people and, even when they did have one, rarely had them switched on
  • Despite being less than seven years old and there being no officially developed or sanctioned software, more than half of people use smartphone apps to get weather or tornado warnings
  • Even if climate change and global warming did not exist and had no impact on tornado generation, more people would be dying in tornadoes. 

The study also found that white men, older people and those who do not speak English as first language are at a significantly higher risk of dying in tornadoes compared to any other group of people, particularly women.  The research warns that with more cheap technology encouraging people to go amateur storm chasing and putting themselves in harm’s way, combined with the doubling of older, potentially infirm, people and immigrant, non-English speaking, populations in the next 40 years, unless radical changes are made to the current warning systems then many more tornado deaths will occur that could have been avoided.  

The study puts forward seven key recommendations including:

  • Scrapping the National Weather Service radio system and investing the money in developing a sophisticated personalized smartphone early warning app.
  • Giving out warnings in Spanish as well as English
  • Introducing three different siren tones depending on the severity of the threat levels
  • Standardizing siren testing times and days across counties and states.
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