Comments On an Interview with Mike Morgan


Chuck Doswell

Posted:  22 October 2013  Updated:  23 October 2013 - added some additional comments

As usual, this is purely my own opinion and represents nothing that has been formally reviewed/vetted by anyone.  Comments are welcome if you're willing to have them posted here, along with my responses.  Send me an email to cdoswell & (click on the email link or cut and paste, replacing _&_ with @) with your comment(s).

On 21 October, James Spann and his WeatherBrains team interviewed Mike Morgan, KFOR-TV broadcast meteorologist.  Much of the discussion revolved around what Mike did during the 2013 tornado events in the OKC metro area on 20 May and especially on 31 May.  I have discussed the latter situation on my blog, but this interview requires a response, I guess.

The primary item of contention is Mike's advice to his audience that they get in their vehicles and "Drive south!" to escape the tornado.  Presumably, this advice is derived from the now infamous remark originally uttered by Gary England during the 03 May 1999 tornado - paraphrasing "If you're not below ground, you won't survive this tornado!"  Gary benefited tremendously from his coverage of that event and many have repeated the notion that a violent tornado is unsurvivable if you're not in an underground shelter (or a safe room).

The sad fact is that most homes in central OK don't have a purpose-built tornado shelter, so when media weather broadcasters say that people won't survive this tornado without a shelter, then to many, the only logical thing to do is to try to escape the path of the tornado by driving away.  There are some serious issues with leaving one's home or place of business in a vehicle to attempt to escape an approaching tornado:
  1. The direction and speed of a tornado can change, sometimes dramatically.  In an attempt to escape, people might well leave a site that turns out not to be in the path, only to drive into the tornado!  Precisely this happened on 10 April 1979, in Wichita Falls, TX.  I find that many people have difficulty with knowing where they are with regard to the tornado, and are incapable of determining whether or not they're actually in the path. 
  2. If a tornado is threatening an urban area, having a large fraction of the residents on the streets is going to lead to gridlock.  In fact,  this happened east and south of the OKC metroplex on 31 May 2013, although the tornado didn't track over all those vehicles, fortunately.  In such instances, no one's going anywhere very quickly, and they're quite vulnerable if the tornado catches them in their vehicles.  Moreover, having all those people on the streets and under stress could lead to casualty-producing vehicle collisions.
  3. The fact is that the vast majority of people will survive (although many will be injured) even if their home is completely swept away by an EF5 tornado.  Gary's statement is simply false and it creates unnecessary panic in people who have no purpose-built shelter.
Based on the above, it seems to me that the best advice we can give people who don't have a purpose-built tornado shelter is to "shelter in place" rather than to attempt to drive away from a tornado coming toward an urban area.  Out in sparsely-populated rural areas, it's quite possible to drive out of the path, so the problem with such advice is within urban areas like the OKC metro area.

The preceding is a short summary of my position on this subject and my reasons for being concerned about Mike Morgan's actions on 31 May.  His comments during the WeatherBrains interview show that he's desperately rationalizing his actions and seemingly believes he did nothing inappropriate - on the contrary, he seems to think his actions were exactly what was needed and (without saying so in so many words) is claiming his calls for people to flee the tornado were responsible for saving many lives on 20 May and would have saved many on 31 May if the tornado had hit the town of Yukon, OK.

I'm going to go through Mike's comments roughly in the order they came up during the interview.  I'm also going to offer some rebuttal to comments made by James Spann - someone whose severe weather coverage is about the best I've ever seen on TV.

It was very disappointing to hear Mike say early in the interview that there was little chance of the National Weather Service (NWS) and private sector weather broadcasters ever being "on the same page" regarding severe storms, at least.  He evidently sees irreconcilable differences such that the public will never get the same message from broadcasters as what the NWS issues.  He may be right, of course, since media weather broadcasters are driven almost exclusively by the battle for ratings (which is especially vitriolic in the OKC metro area).  But he seems to think that if anything, the NWS should come to him, not the other way around.  This position of arrogance seems destined to bar any chance for the public hearing a unified message in a weather emergency - a situation known to create problems with how people respond.  Conflicting messages from different sources reduces the effectiveness of everyone's weather warnings - public or private.

Mike refers to the El Reno supercell as the 'tail end' storm in a line of supercells.  The El Reno storm evolved out of a set of three relatively isolated storms, and a line of supercells didn't develop until after the El Reno tornado.  The El Reno storm never was on the tail end of that line of storms - this is a factual error.  For someone who worked the event, this error seems odd.

James Spann admits at one point feeling that one of his mistakes was responsible for at least one fatality during the 27 April 2011 Tuscaloosa, AL tornado.  It probably is to his credit that he openly acknowledges making a mistake and gives what he believes to be the reason for his error.  His attitude of accepting responsibility for casualties is remarkably in contrast to Mike's clear unwillingness to accept any responsibility for the potential disaster his actions created.

Mike shamelessly cherry-picks his location-specific warning for the Warren Theater on 20 May to mention.  I see no useful purpose for this other than to promote himself and his performance in a very biased light.

MIke makes a big deal about the fact that there was a 41 minute lag between his advice to "Drive south!" and the gridlock on I-35.  I fail completely to see what his point is.  If anything, had the time lag been only a few minutes, he could claim that it wasn't his advice that created the mess.  As I see it, he's showing clearly that he was the primary reason for that "parking lot" situation on the roads in central OK.  I know from personal experience that virtually every road, including unpaved country roads, south and east of the OKC metro we clogged with people attempting to escape.  It certainly wasn't limited to I-35.

Mike failed miserably in his explanation for his bizarre statement that the "destructive potential" of the El Reno tornado was 8 times that of the Joplin tornado of 22 May 2011.  He implies that this "destructive potential" difference is the result of some calculation he made, and it's possible it was.  However, he couldn't describe/explain the destructive potential parameter with any coherent detail.  What was the basis for arriving at the fairly specific number of 8?  What does this number actually mean?  Citing such a number without a reasonable explanation is no more than hand-waving nonsense.  Let him come forward with a detailed explanation of his destructive potential parameter and perhaps we can discuss it.  Otherwise, this isn't worthy of consideration.

Then Mike began an extended rationalization for his actions on 31 May, clearly being defensive and demonstrating how ignorant he really is.  He points out that Harold Brooks (and I) have stated (see below) that the fatality rate of EF4-5 tornadoes is about one percent - which he goes on to dismiss in part because it considers EF4 tornadoes, whereas he's only talking about EF-5 tornadoes.  I remind my readers that in the original F-scale, both F4 and F5 tornadoes involve complete flattening of well-built frame homes, with no interior walls left standing, differing only in where the debris came to rest.  Is it really such an important distinction that we would have cause to suspect widely disparate fatality rates for EF5s versus EF4s?  What justification or evidence might Mike have for suspecting that?  Furthermore, in the real-time heat of an event, can anyone make the distinction between EF4 and EF5 with sufficient accuracy to change what advice you would give to your viewing audience?  Does Mike really claim to be that good?  On what basis?

Mike goes on to quote an article published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society by Josh Wurman and collaborators.  The authors of that article assume a fatality rate for EF5 tornadoes of ten percent, which is ten times higher than the figure Mike attributes to Harold Brooks - he makes no mention of the comments published by Harold and collaborators (including yours truly) that questions the basis for making such an estimate.  The available evidence doesn't really support the assumptions made by Wurman et al. in their speculative estimates, and Mike dismisses our comments on the Wurman et al. paper as being too small a sample.  What sample did Mike use in his (non-existent!) study of fatalities in violent tornadoes that provides evidence for disputing our results?  Answer:  he has no basis for dismissing our result!  He's simply parroting the assumptions (with no basis in empirical evidence) proposed by Wurman et al.  At best, that's an argument by authority, which is worthless.

But suppose, just for the sake of the argument, he's right and the fatality rate in EF5 tornadoes actually is 10% as Wurman et al. claim - the flip side of that is that 90% of the people hit by EF5 tornadoes actually survive!!  Think about that ... if you have a 90% chance of surviving even the strongest tornado if you shelter in place (and it's probably closer to 99%), wouldn't you have to think carefully about getting into your vehicle and attempting to escape?  Further, the EF4-5 fraction of the total damage path of a violent tornado is only about 10% or less.

Mike goes on to estimate the fatalities he believes would have been created by the El Reno tornado if it had stayed at its peak intensity and gone on to hit Yukon, OK - a counterfactual assumption, obviously.  Yes, it's clear that when violent tornadoes hit populated areas, some people are virtually certain to die.  What was the point of all this speculation?  Was it to justify his advice to drive away?  His hypothetical casualty figures are certainly disturbing but they don't account for the fact that by far the majority of people in Yukon would have survived by sheltering in place!  How many would have been killed attempting to drive away?  That's just as impossible to know with certainty as Mike's hypothetical numbers.  Could it have been as many as 0.5% of the population of Yukon?  It's all just speculation, so I can't imagine how this handwaving justifies his advice.

Both Mike and James Spann apparently believe that most of their viewers are simply incapable of using radar information, seeing it rather as a "bucket of spilled paint" on their TV screens.  Given how long TV weather broadcasters have been bragging about and promoting their "Mega-Doppler 9 Zillion radars", you'd think they could've done something to educate their viewers about how to interpret what they show.  Apparently, whatever limited education the broadcasters have done, it's had no meaningful effect.  Whose fault is that?  The ignorant, stupid viewers?  Is this clearly contemptuous attitude the way to help your viewers?

Curiously, Mike then tries to make a case for Gary England's favorite "call to action," which avoids telling his viewers anything specific about what to do, simply saying "Take your tornado precautions, now!"  If Mike really believe this, then why did he give his viewers the very specific advice to "Drive south!" on 31 May 2013?  This seems contradictory on his part. So which is it, Mike?  Specific or generic?

Mike then continues to hammer away that his advice only pertains to EF5s, not EF4s.  So apparently it's just fine for those who are "only" going to be hit by an EF4 to shelter in place.  Only EF5s merit getting in your vehicle and fleeing.  How does Mike tell the difference in real time?  How do his viewers make that seemingly critical call?  The viewers should just trust Mike and do whatever he says? 

Out of the blue, Mike then provides some cherry-picked quotes from "the taxpayers" (i.e., those who post comments on YouTube!) that support Mike's actions.  Presumably, these are the same folks who see Mikes radar displays as a bucket of spilled paint, so naturally their informed opinion of Mike's actions will carry the day!  Does Mike even have a clue about how to make a logical, scientific argument?

Mike frequently refers to the "super duper safe spot" his viewers apparently have in their 'stick homes'.  I guess this is meant to respond to his critics recommending people shelter in place.  Evidently, the 90-99% of survivors in such homes should be heeding Mike's advice rather than sheltering in place.  No one appreciates sarcasm any more than I do, but Mike seems pretty contemptuous and sarcastic about his critics (and his viewers) and is putting words into their mouths I've never heard from anyone.  About Mike's critics - James Spann jumped in with the description of Internet critics as "haters, trolls, and know-it-alls".  I can't be certain to whom James is referring, but Mike was referring to people I respect - and to me, as well - in his complaints about his Internet critics.  It certainly sounded as if James was suggesting that Mike was the recipient of unjustified abuse - that Mike could not and should not be held accountable for his actions by anyone.  That anyone who did so could be dismissed as a hater, a troll, or a know-it-all.  Am I wrong in seeing that remark aimed at me personally?  I'm certainly a vocal critic of Mike's actions.  Mike even has the colossal temerity to say that in criticizing his actions on 31 May, Harold and I (and others) have overstepped our professionalism!  Since when has it become scientifically unprofessional to criticize?  What does Mike actually know about professionalism?

Mike tells people "Don't go through this in your bathtub!"  If you don't have a purpose-built shelter, then, your only recourse is to drive away?  It seems he's desperately rationalizing his actions on 31 May.  He's not only unapologetic, but is doubling down on the very message many of us think is bad advice.  So Mike is now the world's premiere expert on tornado safety and his viewers can ignore anyone else?  Does that seem like arrogance to you?  It certainly does to me.

Sadly, this interview has given me pause about ever interacting with WeatherBrains again.  Mike showed just what he's made of on this program.  You can decide for yourself whether or not to be a fan of his advice, of course.  But be aware that Mike is in a distinct minority position on the issue of using vehicles to escape a tornado in an urban area.

Addi tonal comments:  (23 October 2013) I didn't listen to the end of the entire show.  After the interview, James openly disagreed with Mike about the advice to have people flee in their vehicles.  I wish he had done so during the interview rather than after. 

In some of the follow-up discussion, it was suggested that if someone hasn't done a wall-to-wall severe weather broadcast, then they have no right to criticize a broadcaster.  That is pure, unadulterated poppycock!  No one in the this great nation is immune to criticism, and surely someone charged with responsibility for public safety is not beyond criticism.  I'm not saying that every broadcast has to be letter perfect, but if I believe the broadcaster is spreading misinformation or misleading the public, then why would I not have to right to offer my comments?  I don't believe that anyone who hasn't done severe storms research has no right to criticize me - certainly I have my detractors and there's no justification for me to say they don't have the right to be critical of me.  If they want to criticize my science, that's one thing -  I'd give a nonscientist much less credibility in a discussion about my science, but it's not inconceivable a nonscientist could offer a valid criticism.  I'm not being critical of the technical aspects of Mike's broadcast;  I'm being critical of its public safety content, and I believe I'm reasonably qualified to do so!

Furthermore, if anyone believes the OKC 'weather wars' are not all about the ratings, they're exceedingly na´ve.  Just listen to Mike and his attitude toward his competition during the interview - his motivation is transparent.  Whatever his intentions might be in his 'service' to the public, above all else is the obsession with ratings.