Sirens failed, NOAA weather radio saved lives in Woodward tornado

“We’d been on the lookout for it for three days,” he said. “… We were as ready as we could have been.” – Larry Hill, Thurman, IA, in Time.

“We knew well ahead of time that this was going to be ugly. People listened” to the warnings.” – Sedgwick County, KS Commissioner Tim Norton, also in Time.

“An outdoor warning system should never be the only way or even the primary way to receive a warning,” said Rick Smith, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Our message that we preach is you have to have several ways to receive a warning.”

“It was so fast,” she said. “I hadn’t been in there anytime at all until it was like a bomb went off. I guess it was the roof blowing off.” – 87 year old Wilma Nelson in The New York Times describing how she took shelter in her closet after her NOAA weather radio alerted her just after midnight in Woodward, OK last weekend.

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In the photo above, Galen Zumbach of Creston, Iowa begins the cleanup process with the help of neighbors and friends after his house was hit by a tornado April 15, 2012 in Creston, Iowa. The storm was part of a massive system that affected areas from Northern Nebraska and Iowa south through Oklahoma and Kansas. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

A “well warned” event:

Did we just witness a major meteorological success story last weekend?

Multiple reports indicate that people in the path of last weekends devastating tornado outbreak had plenty of warning in most cases. Some were aware of the likelihood of tornadoes as much as 3 days in advance.

It is quite possible that the early warnings and “enhanced wording” saved lives last weekend.

Though the sirens failed in Woodward, OK due to lighting striking a communications tower, some residents got the warnings from other sources. 87 year old Wilma Nelson was one of those. She was awakened by the sound of her NOAA Weather radio blaring just after midnight in Woodward.

The New York Times takes it from there.

“Early Sunday morning, shortly after midnight, Mrs. Nelson, now 87, was home alone again, on the city’s west side, in the house on Robin Drive, when an alert came over her weather radio warning of a tornado spotted a few miles outside town.

Barefoot and in her pajamas, she stood inside a small closet in the master bedroom, trying to get her son’s dog, a tan-and-white cocker spaniel named Sugar, in with her. Sugar refused, so Mrs. Nelson shut the door.

“It was so fast,” she said. “I hadn’t been in there anytime at all until it was like a bomb went off. I guess it was the roof blowing off.”

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Twin tornadoes developing in Kansas. Source: AP

A severe weather success story?

NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center and media meteorologists started sounding alarm bells as much as 3-7 days in advance of last weekend’s tornado outbreak.

Check out the evolution of the successfully placed SPC severe risk areas from last week.

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Source: NOAA/SPC & KOCO weather blog

As the AP story we posted yesterday makes clear, people heeded the dire warnings.

It appears that this time, the public listened, and acted.

“WOODWARD, Okla. – When a tornado shrouded in darkness and wrapped in rain dropped quickly from the sky above this northwest Oklahoma town, many residents relied on television weathermen to warn them of impending devastation. Others learned of the monster twister from neighbors or calls from frantic relatives.

One backup they couldn’t count on was the town’s 20 outdoor tornado sirens, which were knocked out when lightning struck a tower used to activate the warning system.

The storms, which caused multiple outbreaks of severe weather most of Sunday from Kansas to Minnesota, were part of an exceptionally strong system tracked by the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which specializes in tornado forecasting. The center took the unusual step of warning people more than 24 hours in advance of a possible “high-end, life-threatening event.”

In the end, only the Woodward tornado proved fatal. While it’s unknown whether the disabled sirens contributed to the toll in Woodward, residents and officials in hard-hit areas of Kansas, Iowa and elsewhere credited days of urgent warnings from forecasters for saving lives.

“We can’t do this with every event,” said the prediction center’s Ken Miller, noting that many storm systems are not as easy to predict whether they will be a potential threat to life and property.

Miller said he was pleased the warnings were heeded.

“We measure our success by how the public reacts,” he said. “Do they take precautions seriously and act on them?”

In south central Kansas, Sedgwick County Emergency Management Director Randy Duncan credited the dire language warnings for saving lives.

“People become used to those warnings. That is a dangerous complacency,” Duncan said. “We need to break through the clutter of everyday noise to get people’s attention.”

The warnings had Larry Hill’s attention. The 72-year-old sifted Sunday through glass and debris of his home. Hours earlier, Hill had barricaded himself in a closet as a tornado ripped the roof off his home in the southwest Iowa town of Thurman. He kept a close ear on their television as Saturday night approached, and had bought extra groceries the night before.

“We’d been on the lookout for it for three days,” he said. “… We were as ready as we could have been.”

A National Weather Service official said a “month’s worth” of tornados were spotted Sunday in Kansas. About 100 homes were damaged in a Wichita mobile home, but no serious injuries or fatalities were reported.

“We knew well ahead of time that this was going to be ugly. People listened” to the warnings, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton said.”

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In the photo above, damage from an apparent tornado is seen April 14, 2012 in Thurman, Iowa. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

It looks like we may have just witnessed a major severe weather “success story” last weekend.

PH