LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) --
The Storm Prediction Center intends to broaden its advance warning
system for severe weather after finding that days it labeled with a
"slight risk" turned out to be pretty nasty.
State emergency managers say they're already attuned to bad weather,
but believe new labels for its severe weather outlooks, "enhanced" and
"marginal," could keep them from crying "wolf" -- and the public from
tuning them out.
"We try to educate everybody that a tornado can pop out of
thunderstorm at any time," said Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. "I don't think it will change
the way we prepare, but if it changes the mind of one person in the
public, if it gets one more person to pay attention, then it's worth
When significant severe weather is forecast, the current rating
system labels days as having a slight, moderate or high risk, based on
the chance of tornadoes, high winds or significant hail.
Russ Schneider, the director of the Storm Prediction Center in
Norman, Okla., said the agency has found over the years that some
conditions warranted more than a "slight risk" label, but not quite a
"moderate risk" one. The center's default action has been to label the
areas as a slight risk and advise National Weather Service offices to
tell local residents and emergency managers that the storms could be
"Some 'slight risk' days are really quite active," Schneider said Thursday. "You can get some strong tornadoes those days."
So, sometime this spring -- after its parent, the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration weighs in, likely in April -- areas at
the upper end of the current "slight risk" will be said to have an
"enhanced risk." There also would be a "marginal" category for risks
less than slight.
"That will not raise many eyebrows around here," Schneider said,
speaking in Oklahoma, "but could as you move into the eastern United
States" where storms generally aren't as strong. "The 'enhanced risk'
category will be a pretty high category if you get into the East Coast."
Television stations throughout Tornado Alley, the Midwest and the
southeast commonly show maps days in advance, asking viewers to note
that bad weather could arise. And meteorologists have worked with social
scientists over the years to study how people interact with weather
warnings and to address any sense of complacency, Schneider said.
He cited a storm last February near Hattiesburg, Miss., that blew up
on what had been a "slight risk" February day and could have been better
described as an "enhanced" risk. Isolated strong storms, like one that
hit near Meridian, Miss., last April and killed a man, wouldn't have
required an upgraded advisory because the threat wasn't as broad.
The criteria are being changed only at the lower levels. Current
guidelines for moderate risk and high risk days remain the same.
David Maxwell, the director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency
Management, said the sense of alarm grows as forecasters go up the
"We start paying attention on slight risk," he said. By the time a
moderate risk or high risk approaches, he's holding conference calls
with county emergency managers to ensure they're prepared.
"You don't want to have the effect of crying 'wolf,'" Maxwell said.
But even on slight risk days, Maxwell said, he will trust his gut and reach out if a sixth sense kicks in.
"There are some days you can walk outside and smell a tornado," he said.
Flynn said Mississippi's emergency managers were ready for last
February's storms because local forecasters had already put them on a
"Even if it's slight, that still means something is coming," Flynn
said. "Nobody was killed because emergency managers did a great job
getting everyone ready."