Huntsville Tornado, Nov. 15, 1989 - Southern Region Disaster Survey
|Severe weather information was well disseminated in the Madison County and Huntsville area the day of the devastating tornado. The most effective methods of delivering weather forecasts and warnings were NOAA Weather Radio, NOAA Weather Wire Service, commercial radio and television, and the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) hot-line system. Several outstanding cases of delivering weather information to area residents were noted by the Survey Team. Because of time constraints, a visit was not made to the local Alabama Educational Television station, any cable television (CATV) offices, or the Emergency Broadcast System CPCS-1 station in Cullman, AL, which serves Huntsville and northern Alabama.
The following sections discuss the various dissemination systems and services utilized in association with the tornado disaster.
NOAA Weather Wire Service (NWWS)
The old, landline, 75-word-per-minute, Weather Wire was discontinued October 11, 1989. It was replaced by a new satellite delivery system operating at 1200 bits per second using ASCII code. The national vendor for the service is Contel ASC in Chantilly, VA.
Two of the three major television networks, one radio station, the daily newspaper, and the Madison County EMA in Huntsville have NWWS. The only major TV station in Huntsville not on NWWS has contacted Contel for service, but they currently receive NWS alphanumeric information via the Family of Services. The radio station the team visited in nearby Decatur, AL, is considering subscribing. Two radio stations visited did not have NWWS due to limited budgets.
Dissatisfaction was voiced regarding the length of time it took Contel to respond to subscription requests and complete the requested installations; however, once the system became operational, everyone seemed happy with the increased circuit speed and product selectability options with the new NWWS.
Law Enforcement Teletype System (LETS)
To encourage all states to utilize LETS for the fan-out of weather information to other government agencies, the NWS has arranged to provide one agency per state with a free NWWS. In Alabama, the free NWWS went to the Alabama DPS Headquarters in Montgomery in the spring of 1989. The Alabama Department of Public Safety operates a statewide LETS. From the DPS State Headquarters, all DPS offices, County Sheriffs, and Police Departments are on this circuit. Hardware and software changes have not yet been made to allow NWWS data to be automatically routed on the Alabama LETS.
NOAA Weather Radio (NWR)
There are 10 NOAA Weather Radio transmitter sites in Alabama. The two in north Alabama, in Huntsville and Florence, are each programmed on a separate console at WSO Huntsville. NWR is monitored by all the EMA, TV, and radio stations contacted by the Survey Team (8 visits). Depending on the number of NWS personnel on duty, NWR information may lag slightly behind NWWS, as warnings are usually placed on NWWS first, NAWAS second, and NWR third. The first report on NWR about the 4:30 pm tornado was given "live" with no script and incorrectly gave the location of the storm about a mile south of the actual damage area. This misinformation was corrected when the warning was again aired at 4:39 pm with script in hand.
During the Survey Team's visit to the Huntsville-Madison County EMA, officials stated somewhere between 25 and 40% of the audience acknowledged having an NWR receiver when asked during civic club talks. The EMA also received several reports of citizens and schools having NWR receivers without battery backup; these became useless when power was lost.
Emergency Broadcast System (EBS)
A meeting to establish EBS Operational Areas in Alabama was held on July 12, 1977, in Birmingham. According to the "February 1988 Annual EBS Report", there are nine (9) EBS Operational Areas in Alabama. Four (4) plans have been finalized; five (5) remain in draft form, including the State EBS Plan. One of the draft plans covers the Cullman-Huntsville area. The designated Common Program Control Station (CPCS-1) is WFMH AM/FM in Cullman, AL. Comments from the stations visited clearly indicated that the North Alabama EBS was not a "working plan" even though EBS is tested weekly by local stations. The Mayor of Huntsville, working through the Madison County EMA, used the local EBS network several times during the tornado disaster. His message was used as the audio on TV-31. This had never been done before according to station officials.
While EBS is not used for weather warnings in northern Alabama, this does not appear to have been a detriment in this case since other dissemination systems accomplished the desired results.
Five television stations serve the Huntsville area (the three major networks, one ETV station, and an independent station). The three major network stations were visited.
Huntsville is also served by Comcast Cablevision. This company was not visited. According to the "1989 Broadcasting/Cable Yearbook", Comcast has 36,846 subscribers with 62,419 homes in the franchised area (59% coverage). When the Survey Team visited the NBC network station (TV-48), it was learned that Comcast was carrying some of TV-48's programming during the afternoon which, very likely, included weather updates.
Only TV-48 displays a Severe Thunderstorm or Tornado Watch/Warning symbol in a lower screen corner whenever a watch or warning is in effect. Stations 19, 31, and 48 crawl NWS watches and warnings; 19 and 31 do live "cut-ins" for watches; all three "cut-in" for warnings.
Only TV-31 had emergency power (from an earlier ice storm experience) and stayed on during and after the storm. The other stations indicated plans are being made for emergency power at their transmitter sites. TV-19 is the only major network station that has a noon news report including a weather segment.
Specific details on the actions of these television stations during the afternoon of the tornado are presented in Appendix C.
Three radio stations in Huntsville and one in nearby Decatur, AL, were visited.
Three of the four stations stopped regular programming and even suspended commercials during the peak of severe weather awareness and during the aftermath of the disaster. One station presented continuous weather coverage from 4:30 pm Wednesday through 1:00 pm Thursday.
Additional details on actions taken by the radio stations are found in Appendix C.
The Huntsville-Madison County EMA operates a siren system composed of 41 units. A program is underway to educate the public to tune to local radio stations whenever the sirens sound. The sirens are tested the second Monday of each month.
Police/Department of Public Safety
The Team did not interview any law enforcement personnel.
Huntsville-Madison County EMA
Warnings are received in the Emergency Management Agency via NWWS, NWR, NAWAS, HAMS, telephone, and UHF radio-link to WSO Huntsville.
The NWS called the EMA office at 12:15 pm with information about Tornado Watch #750 that included Madison County. Based on this call, the EMA office went through their call-list and other designated actions whenever a Watch is in effect.
NWS/EMA training has produced around 450 spotters in the Madison County area. The spotter network was activated about 1:15 pm. EMA officials stated that 75% of the time the area is under a Tornado Watch, a tornado report will be received. EMA policy is to call law enforcement personnel to try and verify the report; call the NWS; and then alert area medical services.
EMA officials do not activate the city sirens for Severe Thunderstorm Warnings, nor was the 4:13 pm Severe Thunderstorm Warning read over the CD-media hot-line. EMA officials stated that severe thunderstorms should be expected in a Tornado Watch. In addition to the sirens, EMA has 21 receivers in area schools. Pager/receivers are in 5 hospitals. A hot-line, ring-down system is also available that connects the EMA with 3 TV, 1 CATV, ETV, and 9 radio stations. Any, or all, of the agencies on the hot-line can be contacted as required.
The first report of the tornado to the EMA office came over the radio scanner at 4:35 pm about a possible touchdown at the Police Academy. Warnings on the tornado went out over the CD system at 4:37 pm.
According to EMA officials, without an actual, earlier report of a tornado, or radar indication, there is very little reason or cause to see how things could have been handled differently. EMA personnel complimented the NWS, Police, HAMS, and media for their actions.
There are an estimated 63 NAWAS drops in Alabama including the Huntsville-Madison County EMA and WSO Huntsville. Weather watches and warnings are broadcast over the Alabama NAWAS. Because the tornado struck in a populated area where dissemination of weather information was available via NWWS, NWR, HAMS, and the many media outlets, NAWAS did not play a major role in the Huntsville tornado.
In summary, NWS forecasts, warnings, and statements were well disseminated by the media, EMA, and NWS. The general public, monitoring radio/TV/NWR, had the opportunity to be aware of the developing and ultimate severe weather. Several radio stations discontinued regular programming, including commercials, several hours prior to the tornado and continued giving uninterrupted weather and disaster information well after the storm struck.