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Tornado watches, warnings and advisories - oh, my! [Commentary]

Tornadoes and Wind StormsHurricanes and Tropical StormsNational Weather ServiceTelevision Industry

I think we can all agree last week's weather was pretty crazy, even by Maryland standards.

There was a pretty apocalyptic-looking storm Thursday morning, followed by sunshine as though nothing ever happened.

Then, when the really bad storm was supposed to come through, it narrowly missed most of Harford County and barely amounted to a bad rainstorm.

But if there's one thing that made me even crazier than the atmospheric mood swings, it was the notification system put out by the National Weather Service.

"Tornado warning?" "Tornado watch?" "Flash flood warning?" Plain old "flood warning"?

Raise your hand if you know the difference between any of these things.

According to the thesaurus, a warning and a watch means pretty much the same thing. So does an advisory.

If the government's goal is to show off its command of synonyms, then mission accomplished.

But if the goal is to actually explain what's happening with the weather so people will understand it, then I think we could use a new vocabulary.

Why not use simple language, like "tornadoes possible" and then "tornado sighted?" Or "severe thunderstorm approaching."

That's just one suggestion. But the point is, everyone would know what it meant, without having to wonder if a tornado was merely a distant threat or already in their backyard.

Every time a storm comes along, I see links on every possible web page to answer the burning question, "What is the difference between a warning and a watch?"

Instead of making people look this up every time (while they're busy worrying about losing their power, no doubt), just use different words, NWS.

This is even more aggravating in the winter, when there are phrases used like "wintry mix."

To me, a "wintry mix" sounds delightful, like it should mean a gift basket with hot chocolate and those triple-flavor popcorn tins.

But it actually means a horrible blend of slush, sleet and freezing rain. (Is there any difference between those? Again, nobody knows except the NWS.)

My only other complaint about the weather, and this again applies more to the colder months, is the people who stock up on every possible grocery item before a storm, thereby cleaning out the shelves and creating long lines everywhere for the rest of us.

I know every media outlet is shouting constantly about the impending apocalypse and every TV station shows those terrifyingly-green radar maps.

But I'll let you in on a little secret: They (we) are only showing those things because you like to hear about them.

Fear sells, and you are buying. More importantly, you are buying up all the canned peas and there's not enough for me. So please, take it easy.

I have actually learned this lesson the hard way myself, after all the Hurricane Isabels and Hurricane Sandys and Snowmageddons.

It's easy to get scared, but it's just as easy to feel silly afterward when you're fine. Which - again, despite the news - you most likely will be.

After the weather craziness of last week, it seems like we have all returned to our regularly scheduled lives.

For most of us, it's like the storm never happened.

We'll be sitting pretty until the next threatening forecast comes along, making us scared once again with a new tornado or hurricane watch.

(That's the one where the cyclone is directly on top of you, right? Oh, well.)

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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