The rising death toll from a tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., Sunday evening should be a timely reminder for any area residents who have grown blasé about the devastating potential of such storms.
As of Monday evening, 116 people were confirmed dead, and the number could yet rise. It was the nation’s deadliest single twister in nearly 60 years and the second major tornado disaster in less than a month.
Although tornadoes can be devastating, modern storm tracking systems that provide more advanced warning of such storms probably have helped keep the death tolls down in recent years. However, the Joplin tornado, as well as the Alabama tornadoes that killed 295 people last month, are reminders that tornado warning systems don’t always eliminate fatalities — especially when they don’t get the attention they deserve from the public they are designed to protect.
How many people in Lawrence actually took cover after storm sirens were sounded shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday? Emergency officials said all of the sirens functioned properly when they were activated after funnel clouds were spotted in the area. Some people went to their basements, but how many others immediately went outside to look at the weather?
Douglas County Emergency Management Director Teri Smith also pointed out the importance of people having more than one way to track dangerous weather. People who are inside with the air conditioner running and television playing may not hear the sirens, which are primarily designed to warn people who are outdoors. Monitoring a storm on television or a NOAA radio is a good backup plan.
Those backups become even more important at night, when it’s more difficult to confirm a tornado visually. That was the situation later Saturday night, Smith said. Radar was tracking the storms, but the only way to see a tornado was when it was illuminated by lightning in the area.
We count on our dedicated storm spotters and emergency personnel to keep us informed about deadly weather, but we also need to take some personal responsibility. The storm that hit Joplin reportedly came up quickly, but the Joplin city manager indicated that tornado sirens warned residents about 20 minutes before the tornado touched down. That’s not a long time, but it’s enough time to save many lives if people know where they will seek shelter and move quickly to get there.
When to sound storm sirens is a matter of continuing debate. If they are activated too often and when there isn’t an imminent threat, it can encourage people to take them too casually. Sirens don’t sound that often in Douglas County, which is good. When they do, it’s probably a good idea for residents to at least get inside and monitor the weather situation.
Modern storm tracking and warning systems are great, but they only work if the public does its part by being aware of threatening weather and diligent in protecting themselves. Massive storms like the one that hit Joplin still are likely to produce some fatalities, but public awareness can play a major role in minimizing storm deaths.