Don’t wait for the tornado sirens, take cover

By Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

Having grown up just down the road in Sycamore I’m quite used to the comfort a tornado siren can provide to a Midwesterner. The siren goes off, you go to your basement or shelter. It’s a simple chore.

And herein lies the problem: the siren system was never designed to warn everyone in the area about a coming tornado, only persons outside.

Following nearly every tornado disaster you will hear from someone on TV how their life was saved by hearing a tornado siren at the last second. Such tales of survival are the ultimate form of confirmation bias as these anecdotes cannot be matched by counterpoints from people who waited too long to hear the siren and lost their lives as a result.

We have trained ourselves to partake in a dangerous practice because years ago the siren system was the best way we had to warn thousands of people at once about an impending storm. Breaking that habit even in light of new technology is proving difficult and deadly.

I lived in East Tennessee during the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak, the largest recorded outbreak in history. In the midst of a four day severe weather event across the southern and eastern parts of the U.S., 211 tornadoes killed 316 individuals on that day alone.

A town just a handful of miles from my home was leveled in seconds. An EF4 twister touched down just the other side of a ridge only a mile away, crashing through a valley outside the Smoky Mountain National Park.

I never heard a single siren go off through the entire outbreak as I sat watching weather reports via TV and internet throughout the seemingly endless barrage of lightning, wind and hail.

That day taught me two valuable lessons: 1) have a good weather radio for when the power goes out (and we all know it will); and 2) don’t wait for the sirens to go off before you take cover.

As a Midwesterner that last bit was hard to accept. Sound travels on the plains; you can hear that siren blaring sometimes from miles away, so long as the wind is blowing right, and you’ve been trained since you were born to listen for it when the sky starts churning.

But among the hills and valleys of the Southeast, places where a friend can live just a couple miles away but it takes 15 miles of driving to get there, reliance on the outdated siren system is far lower.

Sadly, undoing 50 years of training to listen for the wail against the wall of sound a tornado producing storm outputs continues to cost lives. And given the upgrades in forecasting and the myriad ways to receive a comprehensive warning it’s a pointless risk to continue to take.

As Dennis Mersereau pointed out recently on his The Vane weather blog, “Tornado forecasting wasn’t all that impressive just a few decades ago. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Doppler weather radar came into widespread use across the United States, giving forecasters the ability…to see rotation (and tornadoes) well before the twisters smash into towns downstream.”

He continues, “In the days before the internet, smartphones, and auto-activating weather radios, communities across the country repurposed their wartime air raid sirens for tornado alerts. These systems allowed people who were outside to run for shelter before the storm arrived and caught them hoeing away in the fields. That’s the key, though—they’re designed for people who are outside.”

The fact most of us spend far much more time in our lives indoors coupled with the fact that the siren system was never designed to warn persons indoors of a tornado should be a clear sign that the siren system has outlived its utility.

Cities, especially those in tornado-prone areas, should not be spending valuable resources upgrading and implementing systems that are obsolete. Continued reliance on outdated siren systems will continue cost lives as long as citizens continue to rely on them.

Buy a weather radio and keep batteries in it. Download an app to your smartphone that alerts you to inclement weather events. If you’re the type like me who doesn’t care to be bothered every time a thunderstorm watch is issued then tweak the settings so only the big events pop up.

But please – for your sake and for that of those around you – do not sit as a tornado bears down on you waiting to hear that siren ring out. By the time you hear it it may be too late.

As Mersereau says, “There are millions of people across this country putting their lives on the line by listening for a sound they can’t hear.”

This severe weather season, don’t become a statistic of a weather disaster. Don’t wait for the sirens to go off; take cover.

shane.nicholson@rockrivertimes.com | @ofvoid

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