The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 12, 2012

Tornado warnings: Better safe than sorry

By Adam Smith

— Anyone over the age of 10 has probably heard the story of Chicken Little or the parable of “the boy who cried wolf” too many times to be believed.

Limestone County residents had a similar experience Sunday as a tornado warning was issued, though there was seemingly no tornado. That’s not to say one wasn’t there — it just didn’t touch the ground or cause any damage.

Following April 27 and May 25 of last year and March 2 of this year, we’re all a little hypersensitive to the sound of warning sirens and weather radio alarms. A cloudy, stormy day now has us on edge, keeping our eyes on the sky a little more than is probably necessary.

I was driving back from a Mother’s Day visit when my wife called to tell me a tornado was spotted in Decatur and moving into Limestone County. I was fast approaching the Tennessee River bridge and worried I would intersect with — what I automatically built up in my mind to be — an EF5 tornado that would pluck my sub-compact vehicle from I-65 and hurl it violently into the river.

I felt a slight panic attack coming on, as the thought of coming in contact with the beast had me irrationally worrying that two of my greatest fears were about to be realized — drowning and/or drowning in a sub-compact car. If a large tornado flings me into a river, I at least want to drown in something sporty or luxurious.

By the time I reached I-565, I was still in one piece, though I noticed several amateur storm spotters sitting and standing on the beds of pickup trucks, which were parked along the interstate access road. All had hands stretched over their brows in salute, possibly thinking these low-tech binoculars would give them a better view.

When I reached my house — still in one piece, I might add — Lensey was watching the weather on TV. She was kind of bummed there was no large-scale tornado, and the weather guys on the tube seemed a little disgruntled that a warning had been issued at all.

At one point during the broadcast, a meteorologist read a report from a college student who was at I-65 at I-565. The student, apparently, said he could see a funnel cloud near downtown Decatur from his vantage point. The weather guys, who were tracking a diminished hook echo in their high-tech radar, called the student’s claims implausible.

A meteorologist told me Monday that a storm spotter likely saw what weather experts sometimes call a “scud cloud,” or low-hanging cloud that looks like a funnel, only doesn’t rotate. I myself have seen these types of clouds on a storm day and have been temporarily fooled that I was on the precipice of certain peril.

In March, the National Weather Service and the Limestone County EMA held a joint storm spotter class, the majority of which I attended. By the time the class was over, each of the spotters was given contact information for the EMA and NWS to call in any tornado sightings, thereby releasing class participants who are considered trained storm spotters.

Officials with both agencies stressed the need for more feet on the ground with eyes on the sky, and I believe the spotter program is a good idea. But perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give spotters a quiz at the end of the course to ensure they’re not chasing scud clouds. After the course, I’m not sure I could differentiate between a wall and shelf cloud, but if I see Auntie Em flying through the air and birds flying backward, I don’t mind calling in a report.

NWS and EMA experts never rely on storm spotter reports alone, however. The verification is backed up with radar data and readings of atmospheric conditions. It’s that extra step of protection that meteorologists rely on before issuing a warning.

I’d never in a million years claim the person who spotted a tornado on Sunday didn’t really see a tornado because I wasn’t there. However, I will say that North Alabamians are scared and emotionally scarred by the wicked weather over the last 13 months.

That being said, it would be nice if spotters, those who issue the warnings and those who sound the sirens are absolutely sure. But, as the saying goes, it really IS better to be safe than sorry.