Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: Warnings

Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather
Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith

My name is Kansas Mom and I'm terrified of tornadoes.

There, I admitted it!

I knew I had to read this book as soon as I saw it. Besides helping to develop my Kansan knowledge, I was hoping it would help allay my fears about tornadoes. I'm not really worried about the house or all our stuff -- that's why we have insurance. I'm worried about getting myself and all the kids into the storm shelter out back in time. (No basement here, so we installed a storm shelter. If we make it there, it's even safer than a basement.)

This book is not an objective history of meteorology. Mr. Smith is one of the pioneers of the field of warning the public of storms. He writes candidly of his own struggles, experiences and feelings. The other meteorologists are his heroes, mentors, colleagues and friends. His goal, of course, is to sing the praises of those who have sought to predict dangerous storms and develop a system for warning people so they can prepare and survive. He also writes often of his own work in the field, systems he invented, and his company (WeatherData, now part of AccuWeather).

Writing from personal experience, though, is no reason to discount this book. Mr. Smith makes the history of weather forecasting fascinating reading, without the antics of movies like Twister. He traces the development of meteorological knowledge and technology to create warnings that save people and property.
In the 1920s, the annual death rate from tornadoes in the U.S. was approximately three per million people. In the early 1950s, with the beginning of a tornado warning system, the rate was still 1.5 deaths per million people. In the last three years, 2006 through 2009, the death rate was down to .068 deaths per million, a decrease of more than 95%!
Thank you! I'm tremendously glad to live in the time of warnings. I'm also glad we live close enough to a big city to warrant lots of storm chasers so the chance of a surprise tornado is extremely remote. (You'd never catch me chasing a storm!)

Mr. White spends quite a bit of time discussing some recent weather tragedies that made national news: Hurricane Andrew, Katrina and Greensburg.(Do you remember Greensburg? I do, but I live in Kansas. See the devastation of the 2007 tornado in Greensburg here. Then check out the city's site on their reinvention as a "green" community here.) In his view, meteorologists successfully and wonderfully saved lives but the storms were followed by governmental disasters (Andrew and Katrina, not Greensburg). He seemed to make sense to me, but I don't follow stories like that too often.

The question you're all asking yourselves is, "Does Kansas Mom feel safer after reading this book?" The answer is complicated. The first part of the book, where he recounts tragedies of tornadoes before the warning system, was distressing. It's hard for me to forget stories like that. Also, despite all the progress made in forecasting and tracking dangerous storms, even Mr. Smith admits some are missed. I have a feeling these are typically the first tornado in a series and often where there are very low population rates so therefore no one out watching a storm, but he doesn't really elaborate on the point. He also admits there are still too many false alarms -- tornado watches when no tornadoes appear. I suppose it's better to be under a watch so we can be prepared, but it's stressful to hear the alarm go off and then think about dangerous storms all night long.

Objectively, I should feel better. I know I should. I'm just not sure I do. I think we need a few more tornado drills. I think the next time the weather alarm goes off, we'll make a run for it and I'll try to time us to see how long it takes. (Last time it took us three and a half minutes, but I was kind of ready for it myself.) We have our alarm set to go off whenever there is a tornado watch (meaning conditions are right), so it doesn't mean there's a tornado. A warning is issued when they believe there is an actual tornado. We have one a little like this one which allows us to avoid the loud warnings for thunderstorm watches and warnings but keep them for the tornado watches and warnings.

I did not receive anything in return for this objective review. I read a library copy of the book.

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