Advanced lead times help save lives in Christmas tornado outbreak

Date Posted: January 8, 2013
The Christmas Day Tornado Outbreak of 2012 will go down in the record books as the first time in recorded history that the city of Mobile, Ala., experienced two tornadoes in less than a week.
 
The first occurred on December 20, when an EF-1 tornado developed over Mobile in association with a thunderstorm that moved northeastward from the Gulf of Mexico. That tornado caused significant damage, especially to homes along its path.
 
It was actually on December 20 when the NWS forecast office in Mobile began alerting the public and media and emergency manager partners to the possibility of more tornadoes on Christmas Day.
 
“We began advertising this system nearly five days out, after the threat for the first tornadic event had passed” said Jeff Cupo, meteorologist-in-charge of the NWS forecast office in Mobile. The office issued a Hazardous Weather Outlook highlighting the threat for the potential of a severe weather outbreak for the Christmas holiday, the digital forecast grids also depicting over 60% probability of a Christmas storm of some kind.
 
“As confidence grew, we amplified the wording and the threat levels both in our routine grids and text products, but also in our extended services,” Cupo said. “E-mail briefings to emergency managers and Web page banners and graphicasts were distributed daily, highlighting the dangerous threat beginning on Friday afternoon before the weekend.”
 
The office issued a Special Weather Statement on Saturday evening, highlighting the dangerous situation that was beginning to unfold. “The fact that this was looking like a Christmas Day storm required special attention so that not only the local media was alerted, but also the national media,” noted Cupo. “This had to be advertised through as many avenues as possible. The SPS was picked up by the national media immediately.”
 
In addition to getting the word out through official products and special e-mail packages, the office conducted live, daily weather briefings, both on via the Alabama statewide emergency management 800 mHz system and through special webinars over the weekend to specifically highlight the timing and threats associated with the event. The office also relied on social media outlets to raise awareness among the public, given the fact the fact that this was going to be a significant severe weather threat unfolding on a holiday.
 
By Christmas morning, the office had issued an additional Hazardous Weather Outlook, as well as multiple graphicasts, to ensure that he public was aware that the first round of storms in the morning did not comprise the main event, which ended up affecting the area by 2:00 p.m. that afternoon.
 
It was during the main part of the event that afternoon that the tornado that struck mid- and downtown Mobile, at roughly 4:45 pm - 5:15 pm. While Tornado Warnings were ongoing at the time, the office issued a Tornado Emergency as soon as reports came in of a large tornado in downtown Mobile.
 
Throughout the event, the office provided constant decision support services through Twitter, Facebook updates, and NWS Chat instant messaging.
 
The average preliminary lead time for the Tornado Warnings issued was around 30 minutes. Cupo praised his team for their collaborated effort — especially during a holiday — to get the warnings out as quickly as possible. “Even with several people out during the holiday week, our team was able to pull together, sacrifice time spent with family and friends, and deliver an excellent forecast and warning operation,” he said.
 
Multiple storm surveys began the day after the event, with the NWS forecast offices in Jackson, Miss., New Orleans, La., and Birmingham, Ala., assisting, since they each had damage tracks crossing into their areas of responsibility.
 
Cupo said the response from partners has been overwhelmingly positive so far. “We have received numerous thanks and accolades, even from some of our most critical partners, for the extensive lead time that we were able to give them. No one was surprised by this storm, given the holiday, as unfortunate as its timing was. The message was delivered, received, and acted upon.”
 
Cupo said the fact that only one death occurred during such a severe event is a testament to the hard work of his team, as well as to the timing of the event. “If this had occurred on a regular work day at 4:45 pm - 5:15 pm instead of on Christmas Day, through the heart of Mobile during rush hour, the statistics being reported here this evening could have been a lot worse.”