Huntsville Tornado, Nov. 15, 1989 - Southern Region Disaster Survey
Findings and Recommendations
The National Weather Service performed in an exemplary manner in carrying out its public safety mission. A Tornado Watch issued by the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC) had been in effect for Madison County since 12:30 pm CST. WSO Huntsville had been issuing warnings and statements since mid-afternoon that detailed severe storms in counties to the west of Madison County. Because WSO Huntsville received no reports of, nor had any radar indications of tornadic activity in Madison County, a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued at 4:13 pm for Madison County based on the large hail report in Decatur (Morgan County just west of Huntsville/Madison County). The Severe Thunderstorm Warning lead time was 17 minutes which is considered to be significant with the current state of severe weather detection technology.
Important dissemination service was provided by the television and many radio stations serving the Huntsville/Decatur area. The positive and quick reaction by the news media was due in part to previous storm history, interest of residents in the area weather, and a close working relationship with WSO Huntsville. The NWS staff are known by media personnel involved in the warning effort. Several stations discontinued regular programming, including commercials, before, during, and after the tornado to provide continuous coverage of the severe weather event. Those with emergency power provided special service as most commercial radio and tv stations lost power when the tornado struck.
All Huntsville television stations visited used a combination of "crawls or cut-ins" to pass on severe weather information to viewers. One station displays a Severe Thunderstorm or Tornado Watch/Warning symbol in a lower corner of the screen when a Watch or Warning is in effect in their viewing area. These are effective methods to enhance public awareness of fast-breaking weather events.
The National Weather Service should continue to encourage television stations which do not currently utilize such techniques to implement those procedures in order to enhance the dissemination of severe weather information.
In one of the first real tests of the new high speed Weather Wire in a major severe weather episode, the NWWS proved effective in speeding critical weather information to subscribers. While there were only five (5) subscribers (2 TV stations, 1 radio station, 1 newspaper, 1 county EMA) in the Huntsville area, they benefitted from the receipt of warnings and statements within seconds of the time of entry into the system.
Renewed efforts should be made to encourage media, EMA officials, law enforcement, and private sector interests to subscribe to the upgraded Weather Wire.
Many people perceived that they were not "warned" about the possibility of severe weather or a tornado even though a Tornado Watch and a Severe Thunderstorm Warning were in effect when the tornado struck.
The NWS must continue to stress the dangers of severe thunderstorms and the possibility of tornadoes with little or no advance warning.
WSO Huntsville issued a Tornado Warning at 3:40 pm (valid until 4:45 pm) for Lawrence and Morgan Counties, followed by a Severe Thunderstorm Warning at 3:54 pm (valid until 5:00 pm) for Lawrence, Morgan, and Limestone Counties. The latter warning did not mention the status of the Tornado Warning previously issued leading to the conclusion that both warnings were in effect simultaneously for Lawrence and Morgan Counties. This proved to be confusing to the media, according to comments made to members of the Survey Team.
Unless they are specifically cancelled, warnings remain in effect until their expiration times; consequently, if a subsequent warning is issued for the same area, it should include a sentence in the text referring to the status of the earlier warning.
Many people in Huntsville were aware of basic tornado safety rules, and there were numerous instances of individuals taking proper protective actions. While it is difficult to estimate the number of people who are alive because of the knowledge of safety rules, the death toll would have been higher had not many individuals reacted properly. Discussions with survivors clearly indicate that last minute protective measures did save lives and reduce injury.
The NWS should continue preparedness and public safety efforts. Since 1975 when some of the first organized tornado awareness weeks were begun, NWS offices have promoted public education about weather hazards. These mass media campaigns as well as group and individual awareness/educational efforts have a cumulative effect in raising the consciousness level of the public resulting in proper responses during severe weather.
There are a number of instances where persons took quick action to save themselves or others. The Survey Team was privileged to meet two individuals deserving of special note; they are Mrs. Dawson, Principal of the Jones Valley Elementary School, and Ms. Penney Cato, teacher in charge of the Extended Daycare Program at the school. It was Mrs. Dawson who because of her knowledge of tornado safety rules and her awareness of the severe weather potential that day, instructed Ms. Cato to take 37 children and several teachers to a place of safety on the lower level of the school. Ms. Cato followed these instructions and showed real courage under difficult conditions as she prepared the children for the approaching storm. Without a doubt, these two ladies aided by the other teachers and several painters who were in the building at the time, were instrumental in saving the lives of the children.
NOAA/National Weather Service Public Service Awards were presented to Mrs. Dawson and Ms. Cato by Mrs. Marilyn Quayle, wife of the Vice President of the United States. The presentation by Mrs. Quayle was made in a special ceremony conducted at the temporary Jones Valley Elementary School during the 1990 Severe Weather Awareness Week in Alabama.
Attrition of the WSO Huntsville staff due to deaths and transfers limited the time available to conduct outreach activities associated with the severe weather awareness program. The Survey Team noted that in spite of these limitations, there exists a good rapport between the staff and the user community.
Weather information currently reaches the Alabama Department of Public Safety via NOAA Weather Wire where it is then manually entered into the Alabama Law Enforcement Teletype System (LETS). This episode showed that significant fast breaking weather can overwhelm a manual relay system.
Since automated interfaces with LETS has proven effective in the rapid relay of weather information in other states, any state without this capability should seek a means to automatically relay severe weather information into their LETS.
The Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) Operational Plan for Huntsville, four other Alabama Operational Areas, and the State of Alabama EBS Plan are still in draft form. EBS is used for local emergencies and tested routinely as required by FCC regulations; however, it is not used for weather warnings.
State and local media, EMA officials, the FCC, and the NWS should renew efforts to make EBS a viable system for weather emergencies in Alabama.
Media accounts and Survey Team interviews revealed that individuals, schools, etc., utilize NOAA Weather Radio; however, many of these users have NWR receivers which are not equipped with battery backup capability. These receivers and NWR service became useless when electrical power was lost.
The advantage of having NWR receivers equipped with a battery backup should be stressed to all interested parties utilizing NWR. Users may want to upgrade their NWR units.