Comments On an Interview with Mike Morgan
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 & earthlink.net (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
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 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.
- 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
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.
- 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
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