Lawrence was never mentioned in the text of a National Weather Service warning issued prior to Sunday morning's severe storm - an omission that's causing the agency to make a change to its computerized mapping program.
"We're looking at trying to get the best information for the city of Lawrence," said Kurt Holderbach, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Topeka office. "We don't want to overwarn, but we also want to make sure the warning covers the entire area."
Lawrence resident Matt Unruh said he was listening to his weather radio Sunday morning and heard an alert shortly before 8 a.m. A warning was issued for northwest Douglas County and southeast Jefferson County, and it specifically mentioned Williamstown and portions of the Kansas Turnpike as affected areas.
"I thought that the storm was probably going to miss Lawrence : based on the way the warning was worded," he said.
Here's how the omission happened, according to Holderbach:
Whenever the agency's meteorologists forecast the path of a storm, they use a computer mapping program to draw a polygon - usually with four sides - outlining the area they expect to be most at risk. The software program then recognizes the locations included in the polygon, such as cities and highway mile markers, and includes them in the wording of an automatically generated weather alert.
The polygon drawn by meteorologists prior to the 7:53 a.m. warning included roughly the western half of Lawrence. But that wasn't enough to get the computer program to recognize Lawrence as being an affected location.
The agency's mapping software allows one point - and one point only - to be used to represent a city. In Lawrence's case, the point representing the city is roughly over downtown, Holderbach said.
But because the shape drawn by the meteorologists didn't include downtown, the computer didn't recognize Lawrence as being affected.
Holderbach said that in coming days, the agency plans to reprogram the software to shift the point representing Lawrence farther west. That way, he said, it will reflect the growth in recent decades that has shifted the geographical center of the city closer to Iowa Street.
An exact location for the new mapping point hadn't been determined as of Tuesday.
Holderbach said the agency's software was not capable of allowing multiple points to represent the same city.
The question remains: If Lawrence had been mentioned in the warning, would it have made any difference in terms of emergency readiness? Holderbach said it shouldn't matter. Even though the warning didn't mention Lawrence, it did include northwest Douglas County.
He said residents should interpret that to include Lawrence.
Also, he said, some media outlets that receive the agency's warnings don't read the entire text and only make note of the counties affected. For example, the maps shown at the bottom of television screens during storms illuminate counties with severe weather warnings but don't distinguish between cities.
And, Holderbach said, with the way the storm developed there was no way to tell where the microburst that did the most damage was going to emerge.
Paula Phillips, director of Douglas County Emergency Management, said her agency's response wouldn't have changed if Lawrence had been mentioned in the warning.
"We activate our spotters and our staff for any severe thunderstorm warning within two counties of Douglas County," she said. "If it's got 'Douglas County' in the warning or watch, we're there. : We wouldn't have even noticed that Lawrence wasn't specifically named, because the county was."
March 12, 2006, Storm
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