Trio of Senators Introduce TORNADO Act Aimed at Improving Weather Communication

Posted: March 28, 2022 2:04 pm

Bevy of Issues Contributed to Severe Weather Communication Failure on March 5

The U.S. Senate is looking to improve the communication of tornado warnings, potentially saving a countless number of lives. Three senators proposed the new legislation in early March after the National Weather Service (NWS) experienced delays in sending out alerts of severe weather earlier.

About the Legislation

This legislation is known as the Tornado Observations Research and Notification Assessment for Development of Operations Act, dubbed the TORNADO Act for short. The bill was introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa as well as Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. All three of these senators are Republicans that represent areas that are frequently impacted by severe weather.

If passed, the legislation would launch a pilot program designed to implement new techniques to communicate about impending hazardous weather. The bill would also require that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) improve its forecasting and storm assessment procedures.

In addition to the support from the U.S. Senate, the legislation is also backed by Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne of Iowa, a Democrat. Both of these representatives wrote a letter directed to the NWS acting director Mary Erickson, urging for the group to officially explain the reason for the delays while asking for a plan to address how they plan to fix these problems in the future.

According to some meteorologists, the legislation is long overdue. For years, experts have been asking that the NWS improve its release of information so that it is more timely and accurate. Of particular concern is the service’s frequent technical difficulties that result in the delay of dissemination of information, threatening public safety when storms are near.

Diving Into the Problems

An outbreak of severe weather across a large part of the central U.S. on March 5 precipitated this legislation introduction. While the NWS issued several alerts over the course of the day, some of the warnings did not reach residents in Iowa for two to seven minutes. The longest delay happened just after 4 pm local time. Approximately 20 minutes later, an EF4-rated tornado touched down in Winterset, Iowa, killing six people in its path. Experts believe that lives may have been saved had the warnings went off on time.

According to the NWS director of public affairs Susan Buchanan, the agency’s satellite network was overloaded due to the high amount of messages being transmitted during the severe weather outbreak. Complicating the issue even further was that the employees at the Dallas-Fort Worth NWS office had to lean on the satellites after a fiber optic cable broke down. This increased the number of messages that had to be sent through the connection, compromising the network’s ability to send out the alerts in a timely manner.

Buchanan said that the NWS sent out the warnings with an average lead time of about 20 minutes on March 5. The national average is 10 minutes, demonstrating that the alerts were indeed significantly delayed on this tragic day.

According to The Washington Post, this is not the first time that the NWS had experienced significant delays in getting out critical information. These delays have been recorded stretching back to 2013. The recent issues are just another example of how disruptions to the usual protocol may cost lives.

Pinpointing the Issue

NOAA’s Environmental Information Services Working Group (EISWG), released a statement in June 2021 detailing their opinion on the reasons that the NWS was dealing with delay issues. The EISWG said that an inability to expand the infrastructure and modernization of weather detecting systems, an increase in demand for weather data, limited resources, and the challenges of working within the government processes are all reasons why the NWS is experiencing information delivery problems.

As such, the EISWG recommended that it improve its engagement with the Weather Enterprise, enhance its user management, and provide more training programs. However, lawmakers are urging Congress to act with more urgency in addressing the issue. The goal of the TORNADO Act is to provide this support to assist in the efforts of improving the information delivery coming out of the NWS so that the tragedies that occurred on March 5 can be mitigated.