Storm warning

Modern storm warning systems only work if the public also does its part.

May 24, 2011


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.


kernal 6 years, 6 months ago

Some survivors of the Joplin tornado said they couldn't hear the sirens over the noise of the storm - wind, hail and rain. That's why a noaa radio is a good idea; especially if you are a sound sleeper at night.

Maddy Griffin 6 years, 6 months ago

By imminent, do you mean only when we're in the direct path? Joplin sounded their alarms 17 minutes before the tornado hit them. They weren't able to hear them because the storm was too loud. Keep doing what you do DCEPO! I'd rather be safely in the basement waiting, than not have time to get there.

auntiesocial 6 years, 6 months ago

I don't watch television or listen to the radio often. If it had not been for the sirens, I would not have known anything at all about the storm. I have an ederly parent that was in the path of the storm. The sirens did exactly what they were meant to do - bring attention to the threat of severe weather in the area.

I agree with Grammady, keep doing what you are doing.

jafs 6 years, 6 months ago

We heard the siren, and went to a basement.

But, I thought the siren was a bit muted and quick, compared to other times I've heard it. It was definitely not as loud or long as the tests of it have been.

Laura Wilson 6 years, 6 months ago

Never heard the sirens and there's one about five blocks from me. I did have my weather radio go off several times but the closest tornado warning was for extreme northwest Douglas County. I'm in the southern part of Lawrence, why would I have gone to the basement when I was able to watch tv upstairs to follow the storm that Channel 6 only broke in occasionally for? If the local news doesn't think it's important to stay on for the whole thing, I have to figure it's not going to hit us.

Heck, I barely got any rain.

I remember when the sirens went off for tornadoes (I remember when the sirens were put in!). Now they go off for anything. Local news and weather radios are much more effective and trustworthy for me.

allinyourhead 6 years, 6 months ago

We have 5 kids, and their friends were over. Not a kid was over 10. We had our kids moving to cover before you could say 'is that a tornado'? I grew up and went to school in Chapman, Kansas. I've LEARNED my lesson.

KU_cynic 6 years, 6 months ago

I heard the sirens on Saturday. I immediately turned on the TV to get information. Channel 6 showed nothing useful. The Topeka stations suggested there might be a tornado in Osage county; there was no mention of any sightings in Douglas county at that time. Later in the evening there was some more specific information about a cell headed for the Baldwin area.

After the sirens went off at 6:00 I also looked at the on-line version of the LJW which was just about worthless; no tangible usable information about when/where/how a tornado had been sighted or the potential path of the storm.

So, in summary, what did I do Saturday? After hearing the sirens I looked for local sources of information and found nothing useful. Non-local sources of information such as the Topeka and KC TV stations basically told me that we in Lawrence didn't have much of anything to worry about.

It is ironic that in this editorial the LJW scolds people like me for not reacting to sirens, when by all accounts there wasn't really anything to react to and the LJW and its affiliated TV station essentially failed in providing any useful information in real time.

Turn that finger around and point it at yourself, LJW editorial writer.

Tristan Moody 6 years, 6 months ago

If you want more information, you can get the information directly from the spotters and the EOC. If you have a police scanner, add the frequencies 147.03 mHz (normally an amateur radio frequency, but it gets taken over during emergency situations), 155.76 mHz, and 155.805 mHz.

notanota 6 years, 6 months ago

I could barely hear the sirens, and it wasn't raining, and we weren't watching TV. I was the only person in the house that heard the sirens. Thank heavens it wasn't raining like it was in Joplin, or I wouldn't have heard them at all.

When I did hear the sirens, we went to the basement while I tried to confirm the storm. I checked the LJW site, and I saw no info, but I did see several comments that sirens were going off. Eventually info was posted, but weather.com was faster. I've learned my lesson about trying to get breaking news from this website.

cjeter 6 years, 6 months ago

you could always subscribe to the sms/email messages for severe weather alerts. I actually just did that this morning and received a txt message this evening as soon as the watch was issued.

John Hamm 6 years, 6 months ago

"Took cover?" Nah, I went to intercept it. As did a number of other people.

Cai 6 years, 6 months ago

Not only are these sirens worse that useless for all the reasons described above, its ridiculous to say that joplin would have been better off if they'd paid more attention to them.

Joplin was hit by an F5 tornado, in an area that has few, if any, basements. Hiding in the most interior room of a house that gets lifted off of its foundations and moved 30 feet is NOT going to be enough in most cases.

I don't want to make light of tornados in general sometimes cover (interior room or basement) is the difference between life and death, and sometimes selfspotting isn't timely enough. But this editorial doesn't give light to ANY of the issues that it should.

RKLOG 6 years, 6 months ago

Why not develop in-house battery operated warning devices like a smoke detector, that receives a signal from the NOAA? It goes off in addition to out door sirens. It would have three indicators: severe thunderstorm, tornado, and all clear, both audible and visual. Just sayin'...

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