Overreacting In Tornado Alley


Joplin H.S., Post-tornado. (Photo credit: Paul Brady)

Have you noticed?  Government tends to become overprotective when public safety is the issue. I am all for reasonable efforts but there is an ongoing campaign in Joplin Missouri now that is over the top and misguided, in my opinion. It has to do, not surprisingly, with tornados.

A while back our City Manager, an efficient and some would even say heroic figure in our disaster recovery efforts, proposed that the city buy 11,600 “weather radios” for citizens who didn’t already have one, something that at $25 a pop would cost almost $300,000. An article in today’s Joplin Globe says that a five-member newly-appointed citizens’ board in a “hastily assembled session” has decided to authorize the purchase of 4,000 radios on a trial basis. Just why the decision had to be “hasty” isn’t clear, but I suspect it has to do with uncertainty about the efficacy of the solution. They should be uncertain in my opinion because I think it’s wrong.

It is human nature to overreact to big events, 9/11 being a good example, I submit. Heck, a small gang of religious fanatics carried out an unprecedented suicide plan, hijacked four airplanes in a way that had never been done before, and got lucky against an unprepared system. And what did we do? We started two unnecessary wars, tried to rebuild two entire countries, added massive bureaucratic layers to law enforcement and intelligence bureaucracies, armored all cockpit doors on airplanes, armed pilots with handguns, let the military industrial complex budget rise unchecked, added hundreds of air marshals, and searched every passenger including grannies and kids, confiscating their tweezers, and baby bottles. Did all that work? Sure, no more planes flying into buildings. Was it overreaction? Big time, in my opinion. It’s kind of like elephant-retardant spray – works every time in Joplin.

But, I digress. Back to the weather radios. I had one of those at one time and when the Spring storms came I stood it for about an hour before I had all I could take. The things have 7 VHF channels, so you tune to the one you think closest to you and then it goes off every time a thunderstorm or weather event happens within 50 to 100 miles of you, and the racket is virtually constant, fading to an irritating background noise that is still hard to ignore. Annoying is what it is, and too much for me to take. And besides, if storms are happening, there’s always the warnings on TV with the banners running across the bottom of the screen and distorting your picture, even though the threat is, most of the time, far away in another county.  As for leaving the things activated at night, just imagine trying to get some sleep with the thing droning about every thunderstorm within an 80-mile radius!  Ridiculous.

Then, there are the outdoor sirens for people who may be outside. Some people commented that they were tested too often and that they therefore ignored them when the real thing came. Probably true. When the EF-5 tornado hit Joplin two miles south of our house I was out on the back porch looking for funnel clouds to see if we should run for the bath tub. Never did see it – just blackness, wind and hail, and we never did get in the tub. Wouldn’t have saved us if we did, if it had hit us square.

The logo of the United States National Weather...

NWS Logo, via Wikipedia

A lot of this flailing is going to be wasted effort and expense, I think, and I would like to suggest a better solution than weather radios. It’s called Weather Call and it uses information from the National Weather Service.  The way it works, you pay $9.95 a year (or less, through a sponsoring TV station) and in return the Weather Call system sends your home phone a robo call, if and only if a real threat is approaching your specific geographic location. I had Weather Call last year and only got three calls all year – two of them were the evening of the EF-5 tornado. (Next call I get, we are headed to a tornado shelter down the street!) Accuracy, dependability, and no constant distractions – what could be better? I understand that it will even work with mobile phones through the GPS system. Wouldn’t this be better than constant annoyances that are statistically unlikely to matter? For the price of 11,600 weather radios the city could subsidize WeatherCall for all Joplin’s citizens for many years, and what’s more, it would actually work!

Hmm. What did I do with that weather radio? Oh, right. Sold it at a garage sale, and I’ll bet you a $10,000 Romney-dollar bet that it’s gathering dust in a closet somewhere.  If Joplin continues to overreact, there are going to be a lot more radios gathering dust all over town, IMO.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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8 Responses to Overreacting In Tornado Alley

  1. PiedType says:

    I lived most of my life in Oklahoma City and think weather radios for everyone is a ridiculous expense. I agree with every point you made. Responsible people in tornado country will have already taken steps to protect themselves, including buying such radios if they want them. Irresponsible people … well, it’s not the government’s job to protect people from themselves.

    Weather calls are offered here in Denver, but I’ve assumed they cover much too large an area to be useful. “Same county” here could still be more than 50 miles away. If they get that down to, say, 5 miles, I might consider it. Besides, the weather reporters here (tornado neophytes and some not even meteorologists) have nothing like the radar, tracking, maps, etc. of the pros in Oklahoma. And they often report citizen sightings of cloud lowerings, wisps, virga, rain columns, etc., as “tornadoes.” I do better watching the sky and the weather radar on my computer.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks, Pied, and you make a particularly good point about the radar. Doppler radar is now outstanding for being able to pinpoint areas of intensity. However, I have to question that WeatherCall wouldn’t work well in Denver. Really, given the amazing efficiency of both doppler radar and GPS there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work as well there as here. You might want to check it out. Let’s see, $9.99 divided by 12 is (ta da), 84 cents a month!! Pretty cheap insurance if you ask me!


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    You raise a great point about government trying to do something to “enhance safety”.

    Ever wonder the added cost to a car to put the “star” safety ratings on a sticker? Did you ever not buy a car because it had to few stars as the driving factor? Let gas go to $5 per gallon and no one will pay any attention to the “stars”. Cost and MPG will drive those decisions.

    Bicycyle helments as always peeved me. I am an adult so why should I not make my own safety decisions in that regard. I don’t even like seat belt laws. Riding in my own private auto is not like riding on someone else’s airplane!

    Mother nature can be a bitch from time to time and spending all such money to make it otherwise is money down the drain. If people don’t pay attention to sirens why should they do so with a radio either. Most folks do what you (and I) did, hear a warning from sirens, turn on the TV then go outside and look to see what is going on. And if I was outside my home, in a car or walking, I would see the sky long before a siren went off and make my own decisions about what to do. I don’t need government tell me to get to shelter in heavy weather!



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Anson,

      The feelings you describe are Libertarian, and they are appealing. However, I see government’s role in public welfare as a continuum ranging from vital to frivolous (as in free weather radios).

      I only buy a car about every 10 years, but when I do I pay attention to all the trustworthy material I can get on makes and models, including safety. In fact, the older and more brittle I get the more important safety is to me. One of my elderly neighbors and his wife were back-ended in their car and survived only due to their seat belts and air bags, a lesson not lost on Mollie and me. As for seat belt laws, I would agree with you except for the fact that all taxpayers usually end up paying more for our healthcare because of people who refuse to buckle up, crash without adequate insurance and become human vegetables.


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    Indeed Jim, there is the inceasing tension between a strict Libertarian, let the individual decide, to more modest strictures from government to ehnance the “general welfare” to much more dictatorial, government knows best in most cases, approach to what the federal government should or should not do. This blog and discussion is simply and yet, another example of same.



  4. I think you’re saying the proposed weather radio will be a costly equivalent of the color coded terror alerts that we had all got in a habit of largely ignoring by 2003, or 2004 at the latest.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      The color coded alert system is an excellent example, I agree. Bureaucracies are bound by their nature to try to justify their own existence, and if they don’t have something useful to do they will think something up. I think it’s instinctive – it gives the appearance of progress.


  5. Pingback: Little Things Mean A Lot | Still Skeptical After All These Years

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