New Forecaster Rules: Tornado or Not Tornado?

Dan Rattiner Tornado cartoon
Cartoon by Dan Rattiner

I don’t know about you, but every once in a while I get a warning on the screen of my cellphone informing me that a tornado is imminent. It appears in tiny letters on the top of the screen, and then goes away after 5 seconds. It will read something like “tornado alert high in your area until 5:30 p.m.” I get these warnings about once every three weeks.

If the warning comes in about 1 p.m., which it often does, my first thought is how nice of them to give me this much notice about this possibility. It’s so much better than at the last minute everybody shouting here it comes pull up the storm door and get down there into the shelter. But then I think, bopping around in the Hamptons as I am usually wont to do, that this is not exactly what it says. It says UNTIL 5:30 p.m. So for the rest of the afternoon I am tiptoeing here and there and constantly looking up to see if we’ve got one, until we reach 5:30 p.m. and I can breathe a sigh of relief.

The thing is, however, that since they started issuing the warnings that say this, we’ve never had one.

Oh, we’ve had a few tornadoes during the past half-century, or at least I have reported that we have had them. Turns out that in the heavily parsed language of the weather bureau, we have had “water spouts” or things that rose to be almost tornadoes but not quite. So, if you believe them, we’ve never even had one.

Sharknado 2: The Second One

But you could believe me. In 1991, I was involved with one up close and personal. And I called it a tornado in this newspaper. It was midnight. I was in bed with my wife in East Hampton when we were both awakened by a huge whooshing sound. Above our bed there was a skylight shaking on its hinges and making terrible sounds. What we could see out that skylight looked very familiar to us. It looked exactly like what you see when you look into a washing machine on its rinse cycle. Everything was spinning around and around. There were leaves, sticks, branches, splashes of water. And then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone.

In the morning I found that, besides some trees knocked down, this elaborate tree house I had built for my kids in our backyard had vanished from its perch. We never found it. On the house, a chimney was cockeyed and shutters had been pried loose. Across the street, at the Three Mile Harbor Marina, the roof of the building there was torn off. Later in the day I went to Main Street, Bridgehampton where our office was at that time. The tornado had lifted off from East Hampton and, I believe, come back down to land at the monument at the east end of that town, where it then headed off in a westerly direction up Main Street to cut down a huge swath of power lines and trees, after which it tore an entire addition off the Thayer Hardware Store (they’ve got a new building there now) and sprinkled it down in bits and pieces in the road, passed Corwith Lane and School Street, and when it got to Butter Lane it lifted back off. That was the end of the carnage. It had failed to hit Dan’s Papers by just 100 yards.

The second tornado, in 2004, was officially called one by the weather bureau, not here but in Connecticut. It came down from Massachusetts as a waterspout, crossed the Connecticut valley and the Long Island Sound and then slammed into Springs, leaving a path of devastation one mile long and several hundred yards wide through a huge section of the woods, pulling up trees, breaking windows and tearing off roofs of houses as it went.

The weather bureau later that day said it was not a tornado any more when it reached Long Island—it had slowed down to its “water spout” configuration again. I said, publicly in this newspaper, that once a tornado, always a tornado, and I stand by that decision. That it missed my house by about a quarter-mile did not dissuade me of that fact.

So much for my quibbles with the weather bureau about tornadoes.

But now I have a further quibble. On Wednesday, October 22, the weather service put into effect a change in how they describe different weather patterns. It will change how weathermen describe the forecast on television. It will change how they describe it among themselves, and it will change the wording of how they will describe if something terrible is coming. In the announcement, they note that they had opened this as a proposed change for public comment in the spring and that period ended June 17, 2014. Now it goes into effect.

Until now, the terms they have used have been “slight,” “moderate” and “high.” There is a slight chance of rain. There is a moderate chance of snow.

They are adding two new terms to the three old ones, and they are “marginal” and “enhanced.” I think you can see already this is trouble. What exactly is an “enhanced” possibility of a tornado?

According to the press release from the National Weather Center headlined “Experimental SPC Day 1,2,3 Convective Outlook Change,” the word “marginal” is supposed to be used when the possibility of something is even less than “slight.” You are supposed to know that a “marginal” chance of rain means only a brief sprinkle, and maybe for just a few seconds. It’s nothing, really.

The new term “enhanced” fits in between “slight” and “moderate.” So if the possibility of an impending hurricane is on the high side of “slight” but in the lower reaches of “moderate,” they will call it “enhanced.”

I don’t think either “enhanced” or “marginal” could be defined in any way they intend in the English language. The word “enhanced” makes me think that perhaps the rain will glow. The word “marginal” makes me think the impending rain might be on the sidelines, waiting to see if the coach will let it in.

I very much appreciate the incredible accuracy that the weather bureau has developed in predicting things in recent years. We have come a long way since that awful day of September 21, 1938 when people in the Hamptons had no advance notice of any weather problem until they looked out the window to see a massive hurricane with 120-mile-an-hour winds racing up the street. Indeed, I no longer look out the window to see if it is raining. I punch the weather app on my smartphone. If it makes rain appear on the screen, then it’s rain. I also believe them when it says that at 1 p.m. and at 3 p.m. it will rain, but at 2 p.m. there would be a respite.

“Respite” I understand. I have a college degree in English. It means that at 2 p.m. we can all go out without umbrellas to admire the shimmering drops of water that have beaded up on all the leaves and it will cheer us up. But they don’t use “respite.” They just use the picture of a non-rainy cloud.

Has the weather bureau ever hired someone with a degree in English? The fact that they improperly use the words “marginal” and “enhanced” is clear evidence they have not.

I do understand that I had until June 17 to make this point known and I failed to do so.

But I have an excuse.

It was raining.

Tornado Ocean water spout
Tornado or water spout? Photo: iStock/Thinkstock

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