Ready or not (for a tornado)

If I had grown up in the Midwest, I suppose I would already know answers to questions like the ones I’ve been wondering about. But I grew up on the East coast, and tornadoes weren’t something I remember ever hearing anyone talk about.

When we moved to Michigan fifteen years ago, during new employee orientation at my new job I learned about “severe weather” alarms. I didn’t even know what the phrase meant, let alone why it meant I needed to go to the nearest restroom.

As far as I can remember, we never heard one of those alarms during the five years I worked there. But here in eastern Iowa, we’ve heard quite a number of them in the past eight years.

I was at work in Moline when a tornado touched down in Muscatine on Monday. (We had two tornado warnings that afternoon at work, but so far as I know nothing happened nearby.) Driving home, as I approached town I knew something had happened when I started seeing overturned tractor trailers, and roadside signs snapped off or bent at a 45 degree angle.

Later I read in the news (online) that the church we used to attend had had serious damage to the roof, although it hadn’t yet been determined whether there had actually been a tornado. Hmm… If they hadn’t figured out, at the time it was happening, whether it was a tornado, how would they figure out later?

I learned, to my surprise, that tornadoes are rated after the fact, based on damage. There’s no way to directly measure the winds, both because of the short time frame in which tornadoes form and then dissipate, and their destructive power. What kind of measuring tool could you get on the spot that wouldn’t be destroyed by what it was trying to measure?

Instead, the Enhanced Fujita scale considers the extent of the damage, taking into consideration the size and construction of the affected buildings. Monday’s tornado has been rated EF-1, meaning that wind speed was in the 86-110 mph range.

An EF-1 tornado isn’t all that unusual (most tornadoes in the U.S. are EF-0 or EF-1). But what was unusual Monday was that the sirens didn’t go off. The storm developed so quickly that the damage was done before the National Weather Service was able to issue a tornado warning.

I’ve read comments from some people that we shouldn’t be relying on sirens anyway. They’re older technology, and they’re intended for people who are outdoors. Instead, people should be listening to weather radio, or use various apps available on smartphones to send warnings of severe weather. One facebook friend said he had multiple warnings on his phone.

That got me wondering also. Where did those warnings originate, if not the National Weather Service? Apparently there are now private weather services, and a wide variety of ways you can get information from them on a timely basis.

So what if their predictions differ from those of the National Weather Service? Whose do you go by? Well, according to this article, the private services are more accurate than the National Weather Service, and it should simply be disbanded.

Today local local officials met to discuss the lack of warning sirens on Monday. It will be interested to learn what if anything was decided.


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