Effectiveness of County-Wide Tornado Warnings
in Cuyahoga County, Ohio


During every season severe weather is a threat to northeast Ohio, but many times warnings are issued for a whole county when only a portion of the county is affected. In 57 years of data, only 14 tornadoes have caused damage in Cuyahoga County, which is an average of about one tornado every four years. (Hinson) But thereís one thing you can count on during the summer months, at least one tornado warning being issued without an actual touchdown. This can lead to many problems such as a delay in response from the public. Weíre not in main threat area such as tornado alley or in prone areas such as those to the south of the state of Ohio.

When the public is delayed in its response it jeopardizes lives and jeopardizes safety in the actual event that a tornado is imminent. In an article by Barbara Hammer and Thomas Schmidlin called, Response to Warnings during the 3 May 1999 Oklahoma City Tornado: Reasons and Relative Injury Rates, they found that the main source of those being informed of warnings is through the television by 89%.(Hammer) When someone turns on the television they learn their county is under a warning but thatís a large aerial space and thatís a lot of people affected. One point three million people live in Cuyahoga county and since weíve only experienced two F4 tornadoes, most people are going to wait until they hear their community or section is in harms way before taking shelter. (State & County Quickfacts)

One county to the west of Cuyahoga county is Lorain county. The population there is over 301,000 people, which is a fourth of the population in Cuyahoga county. (State & County Quickfacts) Despite the smaller population, there has been 27 tornadoes recorded there in the last 58 years, averaging one tornado every two years. (Hinson) Most weather moves from west to east so if there is a strong line of storms to the west, then those in western Cuyahoga county are put on alert more often than those on the eastern side unless the storm keeps its intensity. Lorain county has seen the most tornadoes versus any other county in the state of Ohio. (Hinson)Therefore if a tornado is brewing on the eastern side of Lorain county and entering into Cuyahoga county, then the whole county goes under a warning.

Cuyahoga county also differs from locations in the middle Plains in categories such as building structure, size, and spacing. Thereís more tree vegetation and hillier terrain in Cuyahoga county blocking peopleís ability to see the formation of tornadoes in the distance such as those that can see them on a flatter, less vegetated terrain. When issuing a tornado warning for an entire county, that would mean that buildings downtown full of thousands of people would need to be evacuated down to the lowest levels and would create an inconvenience for as many times as there is a warning versus an actual occurrence. There are pros and cons to having large populations located in the cities, "by clustering the population, it reduces the chances of a population center being hit. Second, on the relatively rare occasions when such a concentration of population is affected by a tornado, it increases the potential for casualties.(Brooks) In prone areas in the Midwest where tornadoes have demolished buildings, most of the time the structures that are rebuilt arenít built as high due to the threat of another tornado occurring. Despite a building being tall or not, if itís in the path of a powerful tornado, it doesnít matter what the height of the structure is, but it does matter if the people respond to the warning and take shelter or not.

In October 2007, the National Weather Service put into place a new storm based system based on latitude and longitude that wasn't restricted by county line boundaries. This polygon would be more specific as to where the storm is and what cities or section of the county the storm will affect.(Why Storm Based Warnings?) This system seems like itís the solution to most problems by not alerting all residents in an county but rather only part of it.

Even though thereís a new system to zone in on the parts of counties, or parts of the state, where a storm with a tornado potential exists, thereís another problem, understanding the new system from the publicís viewpoint. For years the county based warning system is how people knew if they needed to take shelter, and not everyone always knows where their city is on a map. Now there needs to be a whole new start of awareness to teach to the public about how this new system works and how to understand it. Gary Garnet of the Cleveland National Weather Service Office said that it will take years of learning and teaching for the public to get away from the county based warnings to this new polygon system. This system is only for Tornado, Severe Thunderstorms, Special Marine Forecasts, and Flood Warnings.(Garnet) So the public will have to know when to look for county wide warnings and when to look for polygon type warnings. It's more than just seeing what's on the screen, but "the users of weather forecasting information must hear the forecasts, must interpret them in their own terms in order to make decisions, and must know what to do in order to achieve some desired result, if the forecasts are to be successful in having a positive societal impact."(Brooks) The effectiveness of this new system will take years to test, but hopefully there arenít any lives lost due to the lack of knowledge of how it works.

Even when we get to the point where majority of the public is aware and the public is familiar with the new system and how it works, there still lies another problem, the quantity of warnings issued at one time. Northeast Ohio and Cuyahoga County often see a high occurrence and accuracy from a severe thunderstorm warning as compared to a tornado occurrence from a tornado warning. Wind damage and high winds are more likely than a tornado. (Hinson) Tornadoes commonly develop in popcorn variety thunderstorms. If there are various popcorn variety thunderstorms in multiple counties around northeast Ohio, ones that could have the potential for producing tornadoes and pulse thunderstorms, itís going to take the National Weather Service longer with getting the information out to the public because there are so many polygons drawn. Gary Garnet said that although this system is more zoned into the threat area, it still has its limitations. He then elaborated that itís also up to the forecasters on the televisions to convey the information within the warning polygons.(Garnet) The only problem that exists here is when the information is so specific that it takes the forecaster longer to get the crucial information out when so many people are effected. Forecasters donít want to be too general but not too specific either.

Since many residents get their information from the television, what happens when the electricity goes out? Consumers have invested money in weather radios and many broadcast stations have invested in contracts and advertising for people to have one in their home. Gary Garnet explained that the weather radios are still county based so although the warnings on broadcast television is more specific, the weather radios will just confuse listeners back to the old ways that theyíre trying to get them away from. They are working to do the warnings based on GPS so that anyone within the warning area is alerted whether itís on their cell phones, car radios, or weather radios. (Garnet)

The National Climatic Data Center has a database of weather events currently by county in the United States dating back to 1950. Even when tornadoes occur with this new system they will continue to be categorized by what county the path of the tornado affected. This new system will help aid in narrowing down the common areas in Ohio and other states of frequent tornadoes by area, not by county. This might lead to more advancements in the areas more prone even though we know that no one is safe from the risk of tornadoes because they can happen anywhere at anytime. Instead of mapping out where tornadoes occur the most by county, we can zone in on those areas, for example in Lorain county, where exactly there have been tornadoes that have made up the 27 occurrences. Then we can study the ingredients or factors that affect that area to maybe give us more of a clue why tornadoes strike certain areas and not others from the ground up rather than the cloud level downwards.

Clearly there are improvements that need to be made in the new system but itís a step in the right direction. Once this system is learned by majority of the public, it will be understood just as the previous county system. It will be up to those that design weather radios, cell phones, the National Weather Service, meteorologists on and off the television screen, and of course the public to understand whatís happening. Weather technology advancements have been occurring for decades and this system may have some cracks and kinks within the system, but just as weather is always changing so does the methods of predicting and forecasting it.

Works Cited

Brooks, Harold E., Alan R. Moller, and Charles A. Doswell. "Storm Spotting and Public
Awareness Since the First Tornado Forecasts of 1948." Weather Forecasting 14.4 (1999):
554-557. 7 Apr. 2008
Garnet, Gary. Telephone interview. 05 Apr. 2008.

Hammer, Barbara, and Thomas W. Schmidlin. "Response to Warnings During the 3 May
1999 Oklahoma City Tornado." Weather Forecasting 17.3 (2002): 577-581. American
Meteorological Society. Cleveland, OH. 5 Apr. 2008. Keyword: Tornado Response Rate.

Hinson, Stuart. "Storm Events - Ohio." National Climatic Data Center. 29 Mar. 2008.
NOAA. 29 Mar. 2008

"State & County Quickfacts." U.S. Census Bureau. 02 Jan. 2008. 30 Mar. 2008

Webmaster, WDTB. "Storm-Based Warning FAQ Page." National Weather Service Storm
Based Warnings. 26 Feb. 2008. National Weather Service. 05 Apr. 2008

Webmaster, WDTB. "Why Storm-Based Warnings?" National Weather Service. 26 Feb.
2008. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. 04 Apr. 2008