TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Another series of erroneous tornado warnings were tweeted out by the Kansas Turnpike Authority late Tuesday night to their nearly 12,000 followers. Not long after the tweets were posted, Shawnee County Emergency Management Director Dusty Nichols replied with one word: ‘Why?’ That’s because the National Weather Service had issued no such warning for the area. Not long after the tweet was sent, KSNT Storm Track Chief Meteorologist Matt Miller went on air on KSNT News at 10 to quickly reassure those in the area targeted by the tweet, that there was no sign of any rotation on the radar.
The backlash was swift and KTA’s Twitter account manager tried to reply with explanations to appease the obvious frustration. One tweet explained that the AccuWeather forecasts are specific to KTA mile markers. The KTA encouraged tweeters to learn more about their private mile marker forecasts here. They repeatedly reminded angry tweeters that the tornado warnings they issued were for “a narrow band just along the roadway”. KTA wrote they are simply trying to alert those making travel decisions.
According to Miller, a severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for the area around Auburn, however the winds had diminished and the threat that prompted that severe thunderstorm warning was over even as the KTA continued to tweet tornado warnings. Both KSNT Storm Track meteorologists and those at the National Weather Service were able to rule out rotation in that storm. Miller turned to Facebook to voice his serious concerns about the KTA’s social media weather warnings.
Miller wrote, “This is quite possibly the worst decision I’ve seen made in regards to storm messaging.” KSNT News viewers quickly began responding to his late night post.
Just last month the KTA promised changes to how they handle severe weather alerts. Weeks before, the turnpike sent out tweets “alerting” drivers of a tornado warning near Lawrence on I-70. It was also flashed on emergency signs along the roadway. The problem was, the National Weather Service did not put out a tornado warning for that location. The KTA uses a private forecasting company to provide them with forecasts. KTA contracts with AccuWeather for mile-marker specific weather alerts and forecasting. AccuWeather issued the warning to the KTA, and the turnpike decided to push that information out to its customers.
A meeting between the NWS and KTA officials was held in September to talk about what happened and how to avoid confusion in the future. At that time, the KTA released this statement to our sister station KSN in Wichita: “Our goal remains that we want to provide customers with accurate weather information as it pertains to their drive on the Kansas Turnpike so they can make the best travel decisions.” In Tuesday night’s Twitter tug-of-war, KTA tweeted back at Shawnee County Emergency Management that they have met with the National Weather Service in Topeka and AccuWeather. However, they followed that with “Our priority is on getting info to customers.”
A final plan of action from that meeting was not agreed upon. Still, the KTA told KSNT News at that time that it would verify any tornado warnings from AccuWeather with the National Weather Service before alerting customers. That could not have happened in this case as the National Weather Service did not issue a tornado warning for the area referenced in the Tuesday night KTA tweets.
In one tweet Tuesday night, KTA noted that “One of our challenges is that ½ of travelers are not from KS & turn to social media for info.”
The Kansas Turnpike Authority is responsible for 236 miles of roadway and does not receive state or federal tax funds. It is instead funded by tolls. KTA falls under the Kansas Secretary of Transportation’s jurisdiction. According to the KTA website, the secretary is both the Director and a member of the KTA’s 5-person board.
KSNT News will be following up with the Kansas Turnpike Authority Wednesday to address the serious questions concerning their tweets of tornado warnings Tuesday night.