The siren debate redux

It was a really big thunderstorm early this morning in the metro, as you may know if you’re in the metro and capable of losing a good night’s sleep.

Around 4:30, the thunder and lightning were nonstop, the rain was ridiculous, and the wind was threatening to push the deck furniture around.

In between all of that, I thought I heard the sirens going off in my suburban paradise, so I headed to the window and opened it to confirm. Indeed, they were.

“It must be a tornado warning,” I said to my wife, who immediately relocated to the downstairs guest room.

I, on the other hand, headed for the weather radio and sat through an endless series of warnings for parts of the state in which I don’t live. I’d turned the “alarm” function of the radio off a few nights ago when it went off every few minutes, waking me to tell me that things might get dicey in the middle of nowhere somewhere.

It took a minute or so, during which time the smartphone weather app revealed a blob of pink over our fair city, but finally the weather radio coughed up the warning for my area. There was no tornado threat; there was a wind threat, something that was pretty obvious by the faceful of rain I got when I opened the window.

There were only a few reports of damage by then — the report of a large tree down in South Saint Paul, some damage in Prior Lake, and some leaves shredded by hail in Scott County.

As MPR’s Paul Huttner wrote on Friday, sirens are primarily for people outdoors, and the new rules for sirens say they will be blown now not only for tornadoes, but also for the possibility of winds over 70 mph.

Weatherpeople are in a difficult spot here. If they don’t sound the sirens and there is damage, people will want to know why they didn’t sound the sirens. And yet, when the sirens sound, people get out of bed and huddle in the basement, and then the deck furniture ends up exactly where they left it, there’s a sense of a false alarm, leading to the possibility of ignoring future sirens.

There’s a danger, of course, to doing that. Many people in last year’s deadly tornado in Joplin ignored warning sirens. And high winds from thunderstorms can be as damaging as a tornado, but tornadoes take you by surprise; a thunderstorm — severe or not — announces itself well ahead of time, and when a lightning bolt hits within a mile or so of where you’re trying to get some sleep, that’s a lot more effective than a siren that you can almost make out amid the cacophony of thunder, wind, and rain.

During the height of the storm, South St. Paul recorded wind gusts of 38 mph, Lakeville reported 54 mph, and downtown Saint Paul recorded highest wind of 40 mph. There was a 63 mph gust at Stanton Airport near Northfield, and 55 mph winds reported at Faribault. There’s no report — that I can find — of 70 mph winds.

When a siren goes off at the height of a thunderstorm, there’s only one thing I want to know: Is there a tornado embedded within it? Presently, there’s no siren system to quickly give me that answer.