An Oklahoma Highway Patrol office walks along Porter Avenue in Norman,… (Kyle Phillips / Norman Transcript )
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's like Russian roulette for Midwesterners: There's a storm coming, so you stick your head out the back door to get a gander at it.
Most of the time there's no danger, which is why so many people do it. But it's a habit weather officials are trying to stop.
As a highly volatile system moves into the lower Midwest — with "likely" tornado-producing storms expected to barrel through Kansas and Oklahoma and then Nebraska later Saturday evening — the National Weather Service could be looking at the first true test of its new, stronger-worded warning system intended to send Midwesterners to their basements a little sooner.
The atmosphere is "primed for a good threat of tornadoes, including a few strong ones," that could produce major damage, the National Weather Service in Dodge City, Kan., said in a briefing on the storm. Sounds normal enough to Midwesterners. But if things get much worse the National Weather Service can pump some urgency into its warnings with some phrases that have been added to its official vocabulary: "mass devastation," "complete destruction" and "not survivable."
It's the result of a bit of soul-searching after a series of tornadoes ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., last year, killing hundreds, for which many people did not take cover despite multiple warnings.
On Sept. 20, the National Weather Service released its final report on the public reaction to the Joplin tornado. It illustrated the extent to which Missourians had ignored the warnings for a storm that would kill at least 158 people and erase 30% of the city as effortlessly as you might wipe out a sand castle by dragging a finger through it.
"The majority of surveyed Joplin residents did not immediately go to shelter upon hearing the initial warning, whether from local warning sirens, television, NWR [NOAA weather radio], or other sources," the report said. Many residents said they weren't worried because Joplin had never been hit before.
The report found one resident who ignored nine warning signals before taking cover: The person knew a storm was going to happen, saw the weather changing, heard a tornado siren while driving to a restaurant, wasn't able to get into the restaurant because the doors had been barred, drove to a second restaurant that was still open, noticed the weather changing more, saw the reports of a storm on the TV and the radio, and only then took action after another diner said that there was a tornado and restaurant management told everyone to take cover.
That the resident survived and was able to talk to the National Weather Service's researchers was a nice bit of luck. Five people died at a Joplin Pizza Hut after it was flattened May 24, and it was only just reopened Friday, according to the Joplin Globe.
For now, as a tornado watch hangs over sparsely populated southwest Kansas, that kind of destruction may not be so likely Saturday — fingers crossed.
“A lot of the towns that are in southwestern Kansas — there’s some distance and mileage between the towns," said meteorologist Mike Scott of the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service. "There’s a lot of farmland.” If a tornado does touch down this afternoon, it's less likely to hit something.