National Weather Service warnings delayed ahead of Iowa tornado

A government computer system bogged down during the deadly tornado outbreak in central Iowa on Saturday, slowing the stream of warnings from meteorologists by several minutes.

National Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said in a statement that the agency’s systems had slowed due to a technical issue unrelated to a Texas office. The issue overloaded the agency’s network, causing a delay in message flow in the minutes before the largest and deadliest of the tornadoes ripped through Winterset, killing six.

Buchanan said the longest delay occurred at 4:11 p.m. Saturday, when an agency warning, urging residents to shelter in place, was not issued until 4:18 p.m. .

According to the agency, over approximately 90 minutes from 4:26 p.m. to 6:01 p.m., the EF4 tornado tore through 70 miles southeast of Winterset through the south side of Des Moines and into Newton. Winds peaked at 170 mph.

“The deadly tornado outbreak in Iowa on March 5 was heartbreaking, and our hearts go out to the victims and their loved ones,” Buchanan said.

Iowa State University systems analyst Daryl Herzmann, who tracks National Weather Service data, said the agency’s delays are unlikely to endanger residents, giving them all similarly enough time to react – although he noted that the relatively slow development of the storm played a role in keeping the slowdown from becoming a critical issue.

Comparing the timestamps of National Weather Service messages to the actual time they reached his computer, Herzmann said the agency sent its first delayed warning around 3:22 p.m. He estimates that computer problems delayed the delivery by about three minutes.

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As the delays lengthened over the next hour, Herzmann said, earlier messages would have reached residents long before the storm hit. National weather service warnings were not delayed for weather radio listeners, and the agency’s meteorologists spoke directly with their counterparts at the local television station, who were following the storm live.

“I don’t think it made a difference realistically,” Herzmann said.

Buchanan said the agency’s warnings reached the average central Iowa resident 20 minutes before the storm hit. Nationally, she said the agency average was 10 minutes.

She said the delay in messaging on Saturday was due to a fiber optic cable being damaged at the agency’s Dallas-Fort Worth forecast office. She said office workers have switched from a wired network to a backup satellite network, which field offices like Des Moines use.

Adding the extra office to the network, combined with offices in the Midwest sending out more notices because of the storm, “slowed down the queue of message transmissions,” Buchanan said.

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The slow development and long life of the twister likely helped to mitigate the impact of the delay

Somehow, Herzmann said, the characteristics of Saturday’s storm prevented the computer system lag from causing greater damage.

The Winterset tornado developed relatively slowly, giving meteorologists plenty of time to warn residents. It also lasted an hour and a half, allowing residents elsewhere to prepare.

Other storms can come quickly, with little warning. A seven-minute delay in these scenarios could prevent residents from running to their basements or finding other shelter in time.

“It creates confusion in a situation where seconds count,” Herzmann said. “These kinds of situations should be completely avoidable with a robust IT infrastructure.”

Rob Lightbown, a forecaster with Crown Weather Services, a commercial weather service, said National Weather Service computer systems also went down during a weekend snow squall in New England. He said residents in eastern Massachusetts did not receive text warnings from the agency, although most people were home because the storm hit on a Sunday evening.

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He said most people don’t notice when National Weather Service computer systems go down because delays don’t usually occur during storms.

“Most of the time it’s no big deal,” Lightbown said. “It just delays a forecast or something. But Saturday was a problem. It came at the worst possible time.”

According to The Washington Post, meteorologists have complained about not being able to communicate during past tornadoes via NWS Chat, a messaging service they use to deliver information to partners like TV broadcasters.

In March 2021, meteorologists at the agency’s office in Birmingham, Alabama, told TV station officials they would abandon NWS Chat and instead use Slack, a commercial messaging software. A few days later, according to the Post, National Weather Service leaders ordered all weather forecasters to return to NWS Chat.

The agency’s chat service was disrupted during two storms later that month, with Buchanan telling the Post that increased web traffic and flooding at a Maryland data center caused “intermittent slowness ” and temporary outages.

Lightbown said meteorologists have been advocating for more funding for information technology for several years, while other experts said the National Weather Service should partner with an outside cloud computing company, like Amazon Web Services. or Google.

“Saturday’s incident may convince Congress to look into it more aggressively,” he said.

Tornado sirens don’t go off in Newton

In addition to National Weather Service delays, residents of Newton did not hear tornado sirens until the storm hit their town Saturday night.

City spokeswoman Danielle Rogers said in an email that “it was determined” during a test last Wednesday that some sirens in the city were not working. She did not say in her statement who made the decision.

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Rogers said the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office believes the sirens stopped working because the town changed its communications system. She said the city gave the sheriff’s office “corrected program information” on Friday, but no one resolved the issue in time.

She said a contractor has since corrected the issues and the sirens went off during a test on Monday afternoon.

Sirens are designed to warn residents outside of an approaching storm.

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Contact him at [email protected], 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.

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