Big lag in tornado alert. Administrators duck FC questions

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✔ ✔ ✔ ✔ ✔ An initial Fact Checker investigation shows very serious -- and potentially life threatening -- deficiencies in Duke's response to three tornado warnings from the National Weather Service -- high level alerts meaning imminent danger -- on Tuesday.

Late yesterday afternoon and last night, Duke's emergency response coordinator, Vice President Kyle Cavanaugh, and the Brodhead Administration mouthpiece, Vice President Michael Schoenfeld, ducked e-mails and phone calls seeking a minute-by-minute timeline of the university's response and other information.

Their refusal to be transparent, however, will not shield them from accountability. FC is on the case!!

✔ During much of the day, the entire central region of North Carolina was under a tornado watch as remnants of Tropical Storm Lee pounded the area. By definition from the Weather Service, this means that conditions are ripe for the development of a tornado.

On three occasions, the Weather Service upgraded the alert to a tornado warning, meaning tornadoes may be imminent. (Relax, either spelling with or without the e is correct.)

This level alert can be issued after a tornado or funnel cloud has actually been spotted, or after radar shows indications of tornado formation. The warning means that people should take immediate precautions.

One of these warnings was issued at 1:31 PM by the weather service. By 1:35, WRAL-TV and other outlets had broadcast the alert.

Duke has several methods in place to notify people of extreme danger -- a system similar to that developed by many universities after the massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, that killed 32 and wounded 25.

One of these methods is an e-mail blast.

A Deputy Fact Checker who has subscribed to receive these e-mails reports that the first one was not sent until 2:01 PM -- meaning people were exposed for a full half hour to a danger that was established and known. The tornado warning was cancelled at 2:15 PM, meaning people were exposed two/thirds of the time it was in effect.

Duke apparently did not deploy another of the methods of notification: sirens that have been placed strategically all over campus. We say apparently because our survey was limited and none of our Loyal Readers who responded heard the sirens where they were.

At the University of North Carolina -- just seven miles away and covered by the same forecasts as Durham -- the sirens went off twice, once around 11:30 AM and then around 1:37 PM for the alert where Duke did not get out an e-mail until 2:01 PM.

With more urgency than at low-key Duke, Carolina buildings were evacuated, classes were ended and people hustled to the interior on lower floors. On one occasion everyone in the student union -- a building with particular exposure -- was rushed down to a part of the building that seemed safer. It was a text and twitter's paradise, ending when one person said, "Thank you for visiting our basement."

✔ Duke Today, the on-line "newspaper" for Duke employees, posted the following at 12:30 PM, "Since this morning, two tornado warnings have been issued and subsequently cancelled by the National Weather Service for Durham County."

We do not know about these warnings since we sleep late and then go to morning meetings.

But we do know that Cavanaugh and his emergency preparedness team did not take any proactive steps when faced with these two warnings of imminent danger.

Afterward, the "newspaper" Duke Today asserted "these storms were actively monitored by Duke officials and were determined, based on the direction of the storm, not to pose a threat to the Duke campus."


Pure bullshit, Mr. Cavanaugh. As the Weather Service website tells us, tornadoes are volatile and unpredictable. This is not a hurricane that sets a path, and a week later is still aiming at its target.

Rather, "Some tornadoes have changed direction mid-path, or even backtracked. A tornado can double back suddenly, for example, when its bottom is hit by outflow winds from a thunderstorm's core."

And this line, "Tornadoes can appear from any direction." So your watching and waiting, Mr. Cavanaugh, was the wrong move.

See http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/

We believe that Duke also subscribes to a private weather service, and one of our interests -- had Cavanaugh or Schoenfeld thought enough about the safety of students, faculty, staff, patients and visitors to respond -- was to find out what additional information was provided. We also wanted to know what departments of the university were alerted, for example Duke Police, and what mobilization meant.

According to a PR handout, Duke tests its sirens three times a year. Once each semester, and once during the summer. The aim is to make sure that everyone is familiar with this system. However, at the moment one fourth of the student body has never experienced a test, and we have no idea when one will be scheduled.

This morning's post concerns a specific set of circumstances yesterday. We regret to say the lack of response from Cavanaugh and Schoenfeld has become the general rule of an imperial administration. In the past, a legitimate inquiry of such urgency would not be ignored and indeed it would have been welcomed; in the Brodhead years, people asking questions are regarded as pests.

This is a festering sore that shows no signs of healing, and probably will only be cured by surgical removal of its source.

Thank you for reading FC and loving Duke!

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