When minutes matter: AccuWeather experts explain the importance of pinpointed tornado warnings

September 20, 2018, 5:35:42 PM EDT

On a warm and humid day in September 2001, ordinary campus life changed dramatically in a matter of minutes as an unusually strong tornado struck the University of Maryland, attended by over 30,000 students concentrated on a 2 square-mile campus. Sadly, two students were killed as the destructive tornado hit the campus.

Yet on a dark, February night in 2008 in Oxford, Mississippi, workers at a Caterpillar manufacturing plant received a warning from a private weather company to move immediately to the plant’s tornado shelter. All 85 people in the plant survived with no injuries, but the plant was destroyed. Without that warning from AccuWeather, a private weather company, death and injury would certainly have occurred.

Tornadoes kill. Fortunately, advances in weather science and technology and cooperation between government weather services and the American Weather Industry have resulted in increasingly accurate tornado warnings. This has led to greatly reduced risk for such tragedies when warnings provide enough time to move people to safety when severe weather threatens.

Caterpillar’s on-site security team received that tornado warning from AccuWeather. Like the strong tornado that years before had struck the University of Maryland campus, the Oxford tornado quickly developed and was rapidly approaching and threatening the facility. Due to AccuWeather’s severe weather expertise and quick action, no employees were killed or even injured, although the building was struck directly and destroyed by the tornado. AccuWeather’s warning was the only warning in effect for the facility at the time, thanks to AccuWeather, 85 people returned safely to their families.

2008 Mississippi tornado

Damage is seen to the Caterpillar plant in Oxford, Miss., Wednesday Feb. 6, 2008, following a tornado that left scattered damage across several Mississippi counties. (AP Photo/Bruce Newman)

After the tragedy at the University of Maryland, the university engaged AccuWeather in 2002 to provide tornado warnings specific for the university campus, relying on AccuWeather’s SkyGuard® severe weather warning service to customize weather warnings for specific locations and needs. The institution is just one of dozens of universities that partners with AccuWeather for severe weather warnings tailored to their campus and needs. AccuWeather also partners with 245 of the Fortune 500 companies and thousands of other businesses globally.

On Feb. 24, 2018, AccuWeather proactively warned its clients in Kentucky of five different tornadoes with at least 18 minutes of lead time. Government sources issued no alerts or warnings for four of these five tornadoes, making AccuWeather’s accurate, early tornado warnings to clients particularly effective for the protection of life and property.

On Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, AccuWeather meteorologists had been accurately forecasting the impacts of Hurricane Florence for more than a week, being the first to correctly predict landfall in North Carolina, the first to forecast maximum rainfall totals of up to 40 inches and many other impacts from the storm. Resulting from Florence, AccuWeather meteorologists were especially concerned about the potential for rapidly developing and dangerous tornadoes across the mid-Atlantic states on Monday afternoon that might not allow sufficient warning for protecting lives. The NWS also identified this threat and issued a tornado watch from central Virginia into Maryland at 3:40 p.m. EDT.

That afternoon, AccuWeather meteorologists issued a warning to the University of Maryland, as part of the service set up after the deadly 2001 tornado, to protect the school and its students and staff. It was communicated to the University public safety team. In response, the University of Maryland activated its tornado emergency plans, including the sheltering of individuals on campus and activation of tornado sirens, as a precaution.

“In addition to issuing the warning, our expert meteorologists were in immediate contact with the university’s public safety staff, providing continuous updates on the volatile weather situation,” said Marshall Moss, AccuWeather’s vice president of Forecasting and Graphics Operations.

Using weather radar and other tools, AccuWeather meteorologists observed developing strong rotation in parts of Virginia and issued tornado warnings for customers in the Richmond, Virginia, area. At least one fatality from the tornadoes had already been reported across Virginia. AccuWeather customers were provided at least 19 minutes of additional lead time, compared to government warnings, to prepare for these life-threatening tornadoes based on AccuWeather’s site-specific warnings.

The company’s meteorologists noted the same dangerous conditions that produced the tornadoes across Virginia moving north into Washington, D.C., and Maryland during the late afternoon. The expert team continued to closely monitor weather radar and other tools for signs of potential tornado development.

The team observed strong rotation and other radar signatures developing near the University of Maryland campus and became concerned about the potential for fast spin-up tornadoes, as occurred in the Richmond area that same afternoon. Based on the predefined criteria established with the University of Maryland, which is first and foremost concerned with preserving life and preventing injuries, AccuWeather issued a tornado warning for the campus at 5:19 p.m. EDT.

“Given the concentration of students, faculty, staff and visitors at a university with tens of thousands of people present on campus – the safety of people on campus is paramount to both AccuWeather and the University,” said Jonathan Porter, AccuWeather’s vice president of Business Services and General Manager of Enterprise Solutions.

The National Weather Service (NWS) did not issue a public tornado warning for College Park, Maryland, where the campus is located, prompting some critics not familiar with the warning system put in place by the University of Maryland after the loss of life in 2001, to question why tornado sheltering procedures were activated. On Monday evening, the University of Maryland Police Department posted a statement providing a timeline of the warnings that were issued, the actions the university took and details of the partnership with AccuWeather.

Although a tornado was not reported on campus, Moss explained that the criteria the National Weather Service (NWS) uses for the public and the specialized warnings for the university campus are different. In this case, a strong low-level rotation passed within a couple of miles of the campus and given the history of a deadly tornado earlier that day and radar signatures, AccuWeather meteorologists felt a tornado could be produced at any time with no time to warn.

Porter, who is also a meteorologist, classified this as a dangerous situation. “If a tornado had touched down,” said Porter, “it could have resulted in serious impacts, including loss of life, given the population density of the area and the time of the day in which the storm occurred.”

Other meteorologists took to social media to warn their followers about potentially damaging storms capable of producing tornadoes.

After AccuWeather had issued the tornado warning for the University of Maryland at 5:19 p.m. EDT, The Washington Post’s Deputy Weather Editor and Capital Weather Gang contributor Angela Fritz tweeted about a “couplet” of strong rotation which could produce a tornado near Washington, D.C., at 5:35 p.m. EDT. Fritz then tweeted at 5:38 p.m. EDT that people in several communities, including College Park, Maryland, home to the University of Maryland, should move indoors.

Once the tornado warning was reported by the University of Maryland, Fritz commented via Twitter that the storm was not over College Park, despite alerting her followers to seek shelter if they were in that area.

Later, Fritz co-authored an article critical of AccuWeather’s pinpointed warning for the University of Maryland.

“The Capital Weather Gang’s article on the warning for the University of Maryland failed to present a complete picture of the dangerous potential for rapidly developing tornadoes across Washington, D.C., area on Monday, and is not correct on key facts, such as the proximity of strong rotation to the campus,” Porter said. “Further, they were not aware of the pre-determined criteria set by the university for such warnings from AccuWeather specifically designed to err on the side of saving lives.”

Experts explain how the weather enterprise issues life-saving tornado warnings
The difference between tornado watches and warnings
What is a tornado emergency?
Photos: 1 dead after destructive tornadoes rip through Richmond, Virginia, area

Before initiating services such as the University of Maryland engages, AccuWeather’s impacts specialists work closely with customers utilizing these services to determine what thresholds of weather impact their business, campus, customers and employees, what lead time they need for decisions and for sheltering, and the most accurate and effective means of communication for the information.

Severe weather warnings, which AccuWeather provides to its customers, routinely have different criteria than that which the NWS uses to generate warnings for the public. These SkyGuard warnings are issued by expert meteorologists, who receive continuous specialized training tailored to the client’s needs and work in teams to assure the client's warning criteria are met.

“We’ve documented many cases when our accurate severe weather warnings are often the only warning issued or our warning is issued in advance of other sources giving them greater lead time when seconds count," Porter said.

In addition, subscribers consult with an AccuWeather expert meteorologists who provide additional information and analysis to support the best decisions.

AccuWeather was one of the first companies in America’s Weather Industry recognized by the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a Weather Ready Nation Ambassador, which is a collaborative initiative between government and industry to help people across the country be better prepared for, respond to and recover from weather-related disasters.

As a proud NOAA Weather Ready Nation ambassador, AccuWeather shares government warnings with the public through free consumer websites and digital applications. Porter said, “Our colleagues at the National Weather Service do a wonderful job of issuing watches and warnings for the public. Over and above the Superior Accuracy™ AccuWeather is known for, we add value by customizing information for businesses and various institutions that differentiate services like SkyGuard severe weather warnings with greater detail and further ahead than any other source.”

The United States has the very best weather information available to its citizens of any country because of the foundational weather information and resources of the National Weather Service and NOAA, including effective national radar networks, weather satellites and computational modeling ability, and the NWS effectively issues weather warnings to the general public. Companies, such as AccuWeather, go a step further in situations like this and customize warnings such as for the University of Maryland, where there is a desire to be safe, so that there is never a repeat of the weather fatalities of 2001.

Porter added, “Because of social media, directed forecasts such as to the University of Maryland, have an occasional penchant to spread beyond the campus, as occurred in this case. Had there been a tornado, and the AccuWeather tornado forecasts are extremely accurate, this would have actually proved life-saving. Unfounded criticism for a false alarm in a serious weather situation where many meteorologists saw the risk, suggests a lack of understanding of the tremendous value all meteorologists bring to the nation.”

When Fritz was contacted by AccuWeather for comment on her tweet mentioned above, she said, “Rotation in thunderstorms can be signs of strong winds and hail, not just tornadoes, and going indoors during a thunderstorm is common sense. I did not on Monday, nor do I ever, issue tornado warnings. The only tornado warnings I share with my followers are from the National Weather Service.”

"So clearly, she recognized the danger posed by the storm, but in writing the story about the University of Maryland warning, she did not recognize the life-saving work companies like AccuWeather add to the different work done by the NWS," Porter said.

“All tornado forecasts, whether from the government or private sources, have false alarms,” said Moss. “Safety is paramount to AccuWeather, and our tornado forecasts are tailored to each customer’s needs, which can affect false alarms or lack thereof at any given location. People should take all tornado warnings seriously. We could not be more proud of our team of 100 expert operational meteorologists and the tremendous job they do each and every day to save lives, protect property and help people make the right decisions whenever weather is a factor.”

Report a Typo


Comments that don't add to the conversation may be automatically or manually removed by Facebook or AccuWeather. Profanity, personal attacks, and spam will not be tolerated.

More Weather News