Monday, 08 October 2007

Storm Warning urban legend

Call it exaggeration, call it hype... but know it is urban legend. The Storm Warning for Gauteng for later today (8 October 2007) has taken on all the dimensions of a classic urban legend.

It has it all: the hearsay warning from a reputable institution, the reproduced warning transmitted by fax and e-mail, the attempt by authorities to prevent panic utterly ignored, schools alerting parents to collect children early, offices closing early to allow staff to avoid being on the roads when the storm hits, rumours of the airport shutting down...

According to Nick van der Leek's blog,NVDL, the warning was first issued at 6am, and ran as follows:

National Warning - Issued on Monday, 8 October 2007 at 06.00

Very cold conditions are expected to persist over the highground areas of Western and Northern Cape, as well as over the northern mountains of Eastern Cape and south-western and western interior of KwaZulu-Natal.

Heavy falls of rain are expected over northern KwaZulu-Natal, north-eastern Free State as well as the eastern highveld of Mpumalanga and Gauteng. Severe thunderstorms, associated with strong, damaging surface winds are expected in late afternoon and evening over the eastern highveld, Gauteng, the southern highveld of Mpumalanga and extreme northern Free State.

The last sentence is what caused all the trouble. It apparently inspired hospital group Netcare to brief their staff on a storm that would hit Gauteng at 5pm.

Both the NVDL blog and radio station 702 quoted the warning as stating:

"Don't underestimate the strength of the wind on the road and avoid low water bridges when driving.

"Stay indoors and take all loose lying objects inside. Tie down anything that might be damaged by severe winds. If possible park cars indoors as well."

The e-mails and faxes doing the rounds, according to 702, also warned of a tornado striking Gauteng at 5pm. The time was later changed to "between 6pm and 8pm".

A spokesman for the weather bureau was quoted in the 1pm news bulletin saying that the warnings were exaggerated. The 702 web site reported his comments like this:

Gauteng tornado claims untrue

Emergency Services in both Johannesburg and Tshwane are on alert after storm warnings issued by the South African Weather Service.

But forecasters have strongly denied reports of a possible tornado, saying e-mails and smses to this effect that are currently doing the rounds are exaggerated and irresponsible.

The Weather Service’s Mark Todd says thundershowers will likely hit parts of the province later today.

Meanwhile, the Tshwane metro police department says heavy rains on Friday last week brought traffic in the Pretoria CBD to a standstill.

The metro police's William Baloyi says motorists are being urged to avoid low-lying areas and bridges during times of heavy rain.

Rumours the OR Tambo International Airport has been shut down because of the warning are also untrue.

Astonishingly, this news bulletin was followed by an afternoon of listeners calling in to explain just why the warnings were NOT exaggerated or irresponsible. It's obvious what will happen next: the impact of any extra gust of wind or drop of rain is going to be taken as evidence that it really is as bad as had been feared or hoped.

In the land of urban legends, people hear what they want to hear, and see what they want to see.

(It is, obviously, only coincidence that a movie called Storm Warning is about to open in South Africa. Ironically, it is made by Jamie Blanks, the director who made the movie Urban Legend.)


Steve Hayes said...

Well it had one good result -- my wife phoned suggesting that I take my son to work by car instead of him riding his bike. I did, and he would have arrived soaked if I hadn't!

Art said...

Good to see an old urban legends hand in here, Steve! It being the season to be soaked (in Highveld afternoon thunderstorms), I am sure you will have many more such happy outcomes.

Jaxon Rice said...

I blame the single greatest urban legend distribution network known to man - secretaries with email access.

It was amazing to see just how quickly the "tornado" warning spread this morning.

Arthur - there is one South African story that I have been unable to verify as an urban legend or not. It has all the marks of one, but I cannot a definitive answer anywhere. It's the one about the thieves who leave different colored cooldrink cans outside a property as advance warning signs for their cohorts. A coke can indicates there is a gun in the house, a creme soda can means that there are dogs etc..

Is this an urban legend? It gets hauled out every couple of months and published in security company newsletters and the Citizen.

I have always thought it might be a brilliant tactic by the Keep South Africa tidy campaign as it provides pretty powerful motivation to make sure there is no litter outside your house.

Damaria Senne said...

Hi Arthur

I was skeptical of the tornado warning until I got this warning from a friend: "Within the next hour we will have a temperature drop of 10 degrees. And we will have a severe storm early this afternoon. This covers the whole of Gauteng. Please be careful as a tornado dropped in Randfontein on Saturday and is expected today. Please try to get home safely BEFORE the storms begin."

The warning sounds so dramatic and has enough basic mistakes I knew no credible institution could have issued it. But it was still a good excuse to skive off work:-)

Art said...

Jaxon, you've hit the nail on the head. In fact, this is almost exactly the way the Craig Shergold legend (see previous post) was distributed in South Africa, along with severe guilt trips if one did not take it seriously.
On the cooldrink cans, I can confirm that the warnings are pure urban legend, but still need to pull together the evidence. I will do so in a future posting. Meanwhile, any examples of the warning are welcomed and can be e-mailed to me. Include photos of suspicious litter loitering with intent...

Art said...

Damaria, I love that temperature drop (not to mention your honesty - I promise not to tell anyone at ITWeb).

Sarah Britten said...

It was brilliant to say how the combination of credible sources (Netcare 911, 702 and the weather office) and viral communication worked in combination to snarl up all of Joburg's roads. As I sat in the Sandton CBD staring at sunny skies all I could do was think evil thoughts about our forecasters.

I see through most urban legends pretty quickly - loved the June 16 one about pupils throwing cars with stones this year - but this seemed credible, on the surface at least.

Art said...

That's the problem with these things: they seem just too credible, and it is always with some trepidation that I dismiss them as urban legends before all the evidence is in. Watch that iceberg off the Cape coast, for example...

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