How early is too early for word that tornadoes may come?
NORMAN, OKLA. >> Meteorologists are finding something much tougher to forecast than a stormy atmosphere: the human mind.
Forecasters at the federal Storm Prediction Center see a high chance of severe storms, with possible killer tornadoes, next Tuesday in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate said the early heads-up helps disaster officials prepare, but what about you: Do you really need to worry — or even know about it — this far in advance?
For all of their advances in the physical sciences, forecasters have yet to determine when advance warnings are most effective and how urgent their messages should be. They worry about the "cry wolf" syndrome, in which people may tune them out, and about people over-reacting, especially with tornadoes. People have left much safer buildings and headed into their cars to flee, but cars are the last place you want to be in a tornado.
And it's not just tornadoes. Forecasters are still trying to understand why several people in Houston ignored the mantra "turn around, don't drown" and died after driving onto flooded streets last week.
After mastering physics, meteorologists must now master psychology.
With people, "things change all the time. That makes studying humans infinitely harder than studying physical processes," said Kim Klockow, a visiting scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's headquarters. "We are leaps and bounds ahead in physics."
Klockow has studied both meteorology and human behavior and was hired to help the federal government find the right mix of social and physical sciences in its warnings.
There's a test Tuesday.
In guidance distributed Thursday to emergency managers and local forecasters, the Storm Prediction Center used the term "severe weather outbreak possible" — the earliest it has ever used that language ahead of potential severe weather, SPC spokeswoman Keli Pirtle said.
Six days out, forecasters were 30 percent sure that severe storms will develop Tuesday in an area stretching roughly from Dallas to Wichita, Kansas, including much of Oklahoma. Storms shift eastward Wednesday into parts of Arkansas and the mid-Mississippi River Valley. Subsequent forecasts have offered the same general prediction.
"This far out, we cannot give specifics," said Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Norman. "We don't even know for sure this is going to happen. We're just in a heads-up phase."
Forecasts intended for the general public don't use the term "outbreak." Smith's guidance to the public is to remember that it's spring in the southern Plains, but it's given in a way that won't scare people.
"Can they go out and buy a weather radio this weekend? Can you vacuum the spider webs out of your storm shelter?" Smith asked. "It's April. We're in Oklahoma and Texas. We need to be doing this anyway."
In the past, forecasters often erred on the side of scaring people, figuring it is better to give them too much warning rather than not enough. But Klockow said, "We can't always just hit the red button," especially in the new social media world when things get amplified. Researchers have to explain the uncertainty involved, she said.
At FEMA, the question is, "What do you do differently with this information?" Fugate said Friday. The disaster agency will start targeted social media messages reminding people to get prepared. That's the message officials have in advance: Get prepared now.
Klockow and others found in a study published in 2011 that if people had an hour's notice of a tornado's arrival, many would try to flee, putting them in the path of danger. With 15 minutes' notice, they would seek shelter.
Two years later, the widest tornado on record hit Oklahoma City's western suburbs, forming just after 6 p.m. Eight people died, and a National Weather Service assessment noted that several were killed while trying to flee the storm.
"Everyone had always thought that increasing lead time was good," Klockow said. "People just don't like to be sitting ducks."
Smith conducted a web-based seminar for 150 emergency managers and others on Friday, looking ahead to Tuesday. The goal was to ensure that they were ready, such as by having gasoline in their chainsaws. At his office, he was charging portable computers and ensuring that they had the latest software for conducting damage surveys.
Klockow is already warning people about this potential storm on her personal social media accounts: "I'm hitting the caution button."
Borenstein reported from Washington.
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