116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This past week was Severe Weather Preparedness Week in Iowa, a time when Iowans are urged to develop a plan for what they’ll do to keep safe when sirens wail and a severe storm approaches.
Generally, March is a good time to think about the severe weather season ahead of the its peak in April, May and June. But this year, Iowa already has been hit with a deadly tornado outbreak. On March 5, multiple tornadoes were spawned by severe storms, including a long-track EF4 tornado that killed six people near Winterset in south central Iowa. Another tornado killed a camper at Red Haw State Park.
In the aftermath of the tragedy came troubling reports that a communications problem delayed the dissemination of National Weather Service tornado warnings through the NWS website and cellphones by as much as seven minutes. The timeliness of weather alerts is critical, and any delay could leave Iowans who are in the path of severe weather vulnerable to injury or death.
Iowa’s congressional delegation is seeking answers about the delay. In a joint letter, 1st District U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson and 3rd District Rep. Cindy Axne asked the acting director of the National Weather Service for information regarding what went wrong on March 5.
“We cannot allow Iowans to be in danger because of technical problems that continue to go unaddressed,” the representatives wrote.
U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst are co-sponsors of the TORNADO Act, legislation that would establish a Hazard Risk Communication Office to improve the communication of alerts, test the effectiveness of new alert technology and require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to submit a plan “for the national implementation of high-resolution probabilistic guidance for tornado forecasting and prediction.”
“Our bill will ensure NOAA is taking necessary steps to streamline lifesaving alert systems and keeping their communication equipment up-to-date,” Grassley said in a news release.
The National Weather Service says a damaged fiber-optic cable forced a Texas forecast office to switch to the agency’s satellite communication system. That system is lower bandwidth, and the combination of the Texas office using the backup system and the increase in traffic due to severe weather caused delays for warnings issued by the NWS office near Des Moines to cellphones and its website.
Warnings carried by the Emergency Alert System to media outlets and on weather radios were not delayed, according to National Weather Service spokesperson Susan Buchanan. In a statement, she said the warnings on March 5 had an average lead time of 23 minutes, compared to a national average lead time of nine minutes. Local forecasters issued warnings sooner than usual to account for the delay, without waiting for a confirmed tornado or radar rotation, and used social media to get the word out.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center predicted the possibility of severe storms in Iowa five days before the tornadoes hit.
“Going forward, our offices that serve as network hubs will go into service backup by another forecast office in lieu of using their satellite system, should their primary network fail. This procedural change will prevent a repeat of message delays in the system. In addition, we are running tests and considering additional procedural changes,” Buchanan said in the statement.
Daryl Herzmann, a systems analyst at Iowa State University who tracks NWS warnings, told the Des Moines Register that the slow-developing tornadoes on March 5 allowed for advanced warnings, and delays did not contribute to storm deaths and injuries. But in other fast-developing tornadic events, delays could be more costly.
"It creates confusion in a situation where seconds count," Herzmann told the Register on March 7. "These type of situations should be completely avoidable by robust IT infrastructure. "
The bipartisan demand for more information from the NWS and proposed legislation aimed at improving warning systems are welcome. The problems on March 5 should be a wake-up call for the NWS and NOAA. Any delay is unacceptable and any glitches in a warning system Iowans depend upon in life and death situations must be fixed.
The episode also underscores the need for Iowans to make sure they have multiple ways of receiving warnings. Weather radios are a good option, along with monitoring local media and text alerts. The Storm Prediction Center website posts advisories of possible severe weather days in advance.
Communities also have an obligation to make sure outdoor warning systems are operational. On March 5 as storms approached, the outdoor warning system in Newton was not functioning. Linn County sirens are tested monthly and Johnson County tested its system during drill this past week.
From solving warning delays at the national level to finding a safe space in our own basements, we all must be better prepared for dangerous weather.
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