• Wed. Feb 8th, 2023


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Transmission of Iowa tornado warnings delayed by major NWS tech issue – The Washington Post

However, up to seven minutes elapsed between the time meteorologists at the Weather Service issued warnings and when the public could access them, potentially shortening or eliminating the window for taking action.

“The local offices were issuing the products in a timely fashion, but a dissemination delay affecting all [Weather Services] offices nationwide caused the products to be transmitted a number of minutes later,” Daryl Herzmann, a systems analyst with Iowa State University, said in an email. He created a popular site used by meteorologists that archives National Weather Service advisories, watches and warnings.

Susan Buchanan, the Weather Service’s director of public affairs, wrote that “a technical issue caused a delay of between 2-7 minutes for some transmissions,” noting that “system engineers quickly took action as soon as the problem was detected.” She emphasized that warning lead times averaged approximately 20 minutes during the outbreak.

“The National Weather Service is investigating this issue to determine the root cause and prevent it from happening in the future,” she wrote.

Herzmann wrote that the “issue started at about 2:15 p.m. CST and lasted until about 6:10 p.m. CST,” coinciding with the peak of the tornado event.

The Des Moines Weather Service issued its first tornado warning at 3:22 p.m. Central time; it was delayed by 2 minutes and 47 seconds, according to Herzmann.

As the tornadic storms intensified, the delays in warning dissemination grew.

At 4:11 p.m. Central time, the Weather Service was sounding the alarm about a “confirmed tornado … located near Green Valley Lake,” but it took 9 minutes and 17 seconds for that alert to be broadcast, Herzmann found. The Weather Service said the maximum delay was closer to seven minutes. That was the same storm that would kill six people near Winterset in Madison County, including two children younger than five, just over 20 minutes later.

At 4:34 p.m., a downwind warning was issued for the Winterset tornado, which five minutes later the Weather Service would call “confirmed large and extremely dangerous.” It took nearly six minutes for that alert to reach the public, however, Herzmann found.

The Des Moines Weather Service, aware of the issue, took to social media to tweet warnings and notified local television stations. But unless the public was tuned to Twitter or their televisions sets, they wouldn’t know about the warnings.

Problems continued as the tornado passed through southeastern parts of the Des Moines metro area and approached Interstate 80, with delay times ranging between four minutes and seven minutes.

“I don’t know if this impacted Weather Radio, but every other dissemination vehicle was impacted,” Herzmann wrote.

Weather radio was inaccessible in west-central Iowa as the transmitter tower in Denison, Iowa, suffered a “communications failure” Friday that knocked it “off the air.” There was no word of the transmitter being back online by Sunday.

The Weather Service office in Des Moines was still surveying the damage from the tornado in Winterset on Sunday evening, which will be rated at least EF3 on the 0 to 5 scale for twister intensity, corresponding to maximum winds of at least 136 mph. It declined to speak on the dissemination issue.

“There were known issues with dissemination, the details of which are available with National Weather Service public affairs,” Alex Krull, meteorologist with the Des Moines office, said in a phone call.

Herzmann and others were concerned about what impact the delays may have had during the outbreak.

“I am sick that the local offices had to deal with this and what implications it may have had for those in the path of the tornadoes yesterday,” he tweeted on Sunday. Others echoed his sentiment.

“This is beyond unacceptable & is becoming more common,” tweeted Rob Lightbown of Crown Weather Service, a private forecasting company, who referenced a similar outage last week that prevented snow squall warnings in the Northeast from going out to the public correctly. During that episode, television meteorologists were forced to manually draw boxes on maps, since National Weather Service shapefiles didn’t display.

“Tornado warnings were delayed getting to the public yesterday during a killer tornado event,” tweeted Greg Diamond, a meteorologist and weather producer for Fox Weather. “This is a huge problem.”

The Weather Service has been plagued by technical infrastructure problems in recent years, with regular issues that obstruct the access of certain products and ease of communications, including during high-end weather events.

Websites briefly went down for some users during the height of last year’s severe weather season, and NWS Chat — a chatroom used by emergency management and broadcast entities to connect with Weather Service meteorologists — kicks users out when the system becomes clogged.

During a rare “high risk” tornado outbreak on March 15, 2021, the National Weather Service in Birmingham announced it would be reverting to the instant messaging software Slack instead of relying on NWS Chat. The office was reprimanded by Weather Service headquarters and forced it to use NWS Chat.

Significant technical issues within the Weather Service information dissemination date back to at least 2013.