KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eleven minutes. That’s how long a tornado was on the ground last year in Johnson County before tornado sirens sounded.
A Kansas weather expert said it was one of more than 14 tornadoes that summer where the public was never warned until much of the damage had already been done.
Meteorologist Michael Smith said the lack of warning has become a dangerous problem that appears to be getting worse.
Smith was sitting in the office of his Wichita home watching on radar as the Johnson County tornado barreled down 95th Street. He called his daughter who lives close to the tornado’s path and warned her to take cover – long before the National Weather Service issued any warning.
“They could have seen rotation from the storm,” said Smith, referring to the meteorologists who staff the National Weather Service. “They could have seen lofted debris.”
Smith has devoted his life to meteorology, starting in television and then creating a company that issued weather warnings to businesses. Now retired, he’s never lost his passion for the weather. His home office resembles a weather station.
He said, in recent years, he’s observed the National Weather Service missing a growing number of tornadoes — nationwide.
“These aren’t little bitty tornadoes,” he said. “These are tornadoes that should have been warned of in advance.”
Smith said he worries that as Baby Boomers retire, the meteorologists at the National Weather Service are being replaced by people just out of college who have yet to develop a thorough understanding of radar and receive only about two-and-a-half weeks of radar training from the NWS.
Even the National Weather Service’s own statistics show a problem.
From 2005 to 2011, the probability of detecting a tornado was at 73.3%. During the following 10 years, it dropped to 59.2%.
In addition, the warning time also fell from 13 minutes to eight minutes.
Some meteorologists have argued that the numbers have dropped because the National Weather Service has become more cautious to avoid issuing false warnings. (If too many false warnings go out, people stop taking them seriously.)
False warnings have fallen, but only by 3%, whereas the probability of a tornado being detected has dropped 20%.
When it comes to tornadoes, every minute makes a difference.
“There’s my basement door,” said Smith, pointing behind him. “All you got to do is grab the kids and run down to the basement.”
Ken Graham, head of the National Weather Service, said it’s ridiculous to armchair quarterback something as unpredictable as the weather.
“It’s not a perfect science,” said Graham, who is also a meteorologist.
Graham said climate change has made predicting the weather even more of a challenge.
“The rainfall rates have been higher than we had before, and a lot of those storms are embedded in precipitation,” Graham said.
The NWS leader said that despite Smith’s concerns about the training of young meteorologists, they are never on their own deciding when or whether a deadly storm might hit. They always have a veteran meteorologist by their side.
In addition, he said, the National Weather Service is constantly making improvements to its training and equipment.
In fact, after FOX4 raised concerns last year about the Johnson County tornado, the National Weather Service changed the settings on its radar to speed up the radar sweep of an area during tornadic conditions to ensure that tornadoes will be spotted more quickly.
Smith said his goal is not to attack those on the frontlines, but to push them to be better.
As the climate becomes more volatile, Smith said it’s more important than ever to create a National Disaster Review Board – just like the airline, motor vehicle and railroad industries have with the National Transportation Safety Board.
“It’s made travel much safer,” Smith said.
The National Weather Service maintains that there’s no need for such a board because it already conducts extensive postmortems after every major weather disaster. It even includes local television meteorologists in those reviews.
But Smith said a national disaster review board would not only analyze the performance of federal officials, but also state and local responders.
For example, in Hawaii, some local officials are believed to have inadvertently hindered people from escaping the fire. What went wrong? What needs to change?
“Maybe its time to stop making the same mistakes over and over,” Smith said.