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Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Weather Service rethinks strategy

March 15, 2006

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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:

Jackson Rogers, 3, plays in South Park next to a fallen tree that was knocked down in Sunday's storm. Jackson visited the park Tuesday with his mother, Clare Rogers, of Lawrence.

Jackson Rogers, 3, plays in South Park next to a fallen tree that was knocked down in Sunday's storm. Jackson visited the park Tuesday with his mother, Clare Rogers, of Lawrence.

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.

Why not?

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

Related content for the storm

  • A year later, microburst's sudden fury still evident (03-11-07)
  • EMS chief stays positive after injuries (03-11-07)
  • Comments

    Wilbur_Nether 8 years, 9 months ago

    Hindsight, as the expression goes, is perfect. Ld and others, recall that the warning system worked and the sirens sounded during the 2003 tornado and during various warnings before and since. This particular storm was unique and less predictable. However, NWS and DG Co. are showing that they review what happened and evaluate how well they did. It seems to me that is behavior to be admired and congratulated, not scorned. And Godot, the large flat-screen monitor is a non-issue for this topic.

    lunacydetector 8 years, 9 months ago

    actually smitty, it was a brick wall that fell on the k-mart employee, killing him. the sirens may have sounded when it hit k-mart but the tornado had already destroyed homes off kasold and parts southeast as it tracked to k-mart. there weren't any sirens going off when the funnel dropped down just off of kasold and clinton parkway, i assure you.

    Kathleen Christian 8 years, 9 months ago

    So my question is will this be fixed by the time traditional tornado season begins - which isn't that far away? Get with the program forecasters there are lives at stake here.

    Linda Endicott 8 years, 9 months ago

    The point that would have included Lawrence in the "affected area" was downtown. Er...wasn't downtown hit? Seems to me that the main problem then was the weather service being wrong about what areas would be affected, if the area they chose didn't include downtown.

    There's no way in hell that you can predict the exact path of a storm, just the general area. Seems to me that the weather service should have expanded the supposed affected area, just in case.

    Better to be safe than sorry.

    bmwjhawk 8 years, 9 months ago

    Crazyks stole my thunder. I was going to say the exact same thing. The "point" for Lawrence is downtown. Downtown got nailed. Maybe the problem is with the forecasting tools (two meanings to that word). If you can't predict accurately, don't predict at all. It generates a false sense of security when you're not 'warned.'

    Oh, and don't preempt TV all day long to give us weather information, either. If we're interested, we have the ability to find out what the situation is... like, oh, the WEATHER CHANNEL!

    mom_of_three 8 years, 9 months ago

    "Even though the warning didn't mention Lawrence, it did include northwest Douglas County. He said residents should interpret that to include Lawrence."

    He is just speaking of the severe thunderstorm warning, right?

    But at 8 am, most people were still asleep, so looking at the warnings on tv wouldn't do any good. If the warning had been issued by the NWS, then the alerts on the weather radios would have went off, alerting more people.

    I wasn't in town Sunday morning, so I missed the excitement, but I would rather be "over" warned, then not warned at all.

    mom_of_three 8 years, 9 months ago

    I have lived in Kansas almost my entire life. I would rather the tv stations interrupt then trying to check the weather channel every few minutes. Yes, it is more of a pain, since the tv stations will tell us about Topeka and Kansas City, but I like to hear when a storm from Topeka may be heading our way.

    Linda Aikins 8 years, 9 months ago

    It took until 11:30 to get the generalized "you people" phrase! What's up with all of you posters? Can you people whine any earlier than that? Or were you still asleep at 11:30 today too? (haha) And I'm sorry, but your entire posts are bitchy, quitbitchin. But we let you go, don't we. It's the American way.

    Honestly - the warnings come out for the littlest thing, that I don't even really pay attention. But if the sireens screech, I go outside to look!

    That native Kansan arrogance may get me in trouble.

    kcwarpony 8 years, 9 months ago

    Why would ANYONE rely on a Douglas County employee's ability to flip the right switch during severe weather? Get a weather alert radio, program it, and put it next to your bed. You may get woken up every once in a while for a non-life threatening warning but I would rather be awake and annoyed than asleep and with no clue.

    joedimmagio311 8 years, 9 months ago

    If you want to know the LJ's mispelling, look inside tomorrow's corrections section and see if they have the balls to acknowledge their error. I'm not going to do it for them -- it's their job. Or else, just read some of the back stories about this topic, and I'm sure you'll draw the connection.

    p.s. I'm proud of my joedimmagio-ness.

    Wilbur_Nether 8 years, 9 months ago

    JW...oh, never mind. Your mind is made up and filling it up with facts would only confuse you. Carry on with your righteous indignation.

    Godot 8 years, 9 months ago

    Well, I for one am happy to see that the Homeland Security money was well-spent on that 52 inch flat screen TV for the emergency center. Where would we have been without it?

    mom_of_three 8 years, 9 months ago

    well, qb, since you were awake, you were prepared. Others in the city were still asleep. I still don't understand if the NWS didn't issue the severe thunderstorm warning or if it was the tornado warning. Being a Kansas native, I would like to have any and all the warnings I can get. And if I would be awake at 8 am on Sunday, then I would have noticed the weather.

    field_ump 8 years, 9 months ago

    Why don't they just put multiple points around the city limits and name them all Lawrence? That way, if only a portion were in one of these warnings again it could be accounted for....

    lunacydetector 8 years, 9 months ago

    ...this reminds me of 1981 when a killer tornado came to town. no sirens, no watches, no warnings, no nothing. the sirens blew after the tornado hit. just as then, just as now. same old same old.

    i'm glad the national weather service is finally looking into this. it's only been 25 years to get it right. :)

    Jamesaust 8 years, 9 months ago

    Or, at least create a "city" called "West Lawrence" maybe around Kasold and 15th? I think most people will figure out what is meant by "West Lawrence".

    joedimmagio311 8 years, 9 months ago

    First, the reporter needs to learn that if he wants to be credible, he needs to spell people's names properly. Journalism classes give an F on assignments with one mispelling; I've always been told that in real-world journalism this would cost you your job.

    Second, what exactly did ljworld.com do to notify people of any warning that morning?

    If the paper wants to put others on trial, it should be the first to go before the judge.

    I refer to an old post:

    Dear LJ,

    Since you've done such a good job at pointing fingers around the city and playing gotcha journalism, would you mind sharing what role ljworld.com played in notifying the public of approaching threats of the storm? Is there a place on your site that alerted readers of the warnings, or even an e-mail alert?

    If not, why not? What is the point of instantaneous information and reader service via the Web if you do not do anything to proactively address consumer needs?

    And if you think no one would get that alert in time, well then, why bother to have continuous loca news delivery? Lots of us true Internet nerds are on at any hour.

    LJworld, your might as well count yourselves out of the running for a successful economic future.

    puh-leeeze.

    Assume some responsibility for yourselves already.

    badger 8 years, 9 months ago

    Joe -

    Unless they have BlackBerries, most of the true Internet nerds I know were either asleep Sunday morning at 8, or had turned off their computers or at least gotten offline because there was a serious thunderstorm going on.

    I think it'd be great if the NWS or even the ljworld offered a cell phone text messaging system for severe weather alerts, but again, without a BlackBerry, most of the true geeks I know would have checked their e-mail after the storm to find out it was coming.

    By the way, you didn't say whose name was spelled wrong. Besides Joe DiMaggio's, I mean.

    quitbitchin, I think you make good points. There are severe thunderstorms constantly this time of year. People should be aware of the weather and what's going on, and should also understand that predictions aren't 100%. Storms can hook, change strength, dissipate and reform. There's literally no way anyone could have said, based on existing technology, "And then at about 8, over Lawrence KS, this storm will develop a severe microburst and cause serious property damage." It would be akin to looking at a class of third-graders and saying, "That kid in the fourth row is going to fall down his stairs at 4:15 pm today."

    At some point, people need to say, "Hey, I live in Kansas. A weather radio might be a wise investment." All the warning systems in the world don't change the fact that your safety is ultimately your responsibility.

    JustWondering 8 years, 9 months ago

    STRIKE THREE......WHY AREN'T THEY OUT?

    1.) The prank "suicide" call coming from Nebraska that our arrogantly defiant county dispatchers sent LPD officers to break down the door of Marty Kennedy's mom

    2.) The 911 call from a Baldwin resident that their neighbor's house was on fire, so what do our "SMART" dispatchers do? Send the fire dept. to a LAWRENCE address, so the Baldwin house burns to the ground before they finally figure it out!

    3.) DID I READ MONDAY'S LJW CORRECTLY? Those idiots KNEW at 7:30AM what was headed straight for us within the next half hour and did NOTHING?!?

    The COUNTY Commissioners should wake up and take note of the house-cleaning that the CITY Commissioners made. Linda Finger & Mike Wildgen ARE A GOOD START! Let's GET RID OF a few MORE bumps from the LOG!!!

    riverdrifter 8 years, 9 months ago

    kcwarpony is spot-on. This is the near-heart of tornado alley. You are on your own, no matter where you live. My weather radio went off, I don't know what time it was, I rolled out and was at Signal Oak, overlooking the Kaw valley NE of Baldwin City a few minutes after 8am, digicam in hand, 3 miles away. Nothing to see. When Mr. F4 comes calling in your neighborhood (and he gonna come, sometime, someplace around here), with cheap Radioshack weather radios there on the cheap, where you gonna be? In shelter, or blown downwind to the stars as you sit there whining away at your keyboard on your cheap pc? NOAA weather radios are the only way to go. Ben Franklin was/is right: "Some people are weatherwise, most people are otherwise." Or, excuses are like @a$$h@le$: everybody's got one and they all stink... What's yours? drifter

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