On April 14, 2012 in Woodward, Oklahoma, six people died as a strong EF-3 tornado hit parts of the city. As the storm hit, lightning struck the signal tower that is used for the town’s tornado sirens. Because this happened, the sirens did not go off. It is still unknown what percentage of the people in the town of Woodward, Oklahoma depended on the tornado sirens to provide them with advance warning of tornadoes, and it is unknown if the six deaths in Woodward would not have occurred, had people been able to hear the sirens. After all, deaths that occurred in Woodward, Oklahoma were from a mobile home park, and not from a safe, sturdy structure. More about that below. What we do know is this: a NOAA Weather Radio would have been more reliable than the sirens.
Although tornado sirens are meant to save lives and have saved lives, sirens are 20th century technology. In this day and age, sirens should be a last resort in getting warnings out for storms that could produce tornadoes. With advancements in social media, smartphone applications, and the use of weather radios, everyone has access to weather information at any time of the day, even during the deepest part of the night. My strong recommendation is that your best bet for staying safe during tornado weather is the purchase of a NOAA Weather Radio.
The video below is a look at the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak from Meteorologist James Spann at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama. He talks about sirens and weather radios around 8:48. A must-see video!
Sirens were developed back in World War II to warn of air raids. Sirens were also used during the Cold War era, for air raid drills (“this is only a test”). Siren technology, which was created back in the 1940s, is still being used today mainly for severe weather. The design of these sirens are meant to be heard outside. Sirens are not constructed for every city and county in the nation.
With that said, some people do not have an opportunity to hear sirens in their neighborhoods, especially if they are living in rural areas. And people should not rely on outdoor sirens to wake them up in the middle of the night when a possible tornado is approaching their area. What should you rely on?
A NOAA Weather Radio!
A NOAA Weather Radio can be programmed for your area, and it will notify you through a loud alarm if a warning has been issued. Weather Radio is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office. It broadcasts official Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can purchase weather radios at many retail outlets, including electronics, department, sporting goods, and boat and marine accessory stores.
For more information regarding programming, purchasing, and learning more about a NOAA Weather Radio, please visit the NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards page.
Our friends in Canada can also purchase a weather radio as signals are sent through most of the country. For more information on Weatheradio Canada, please visit this link.
Another great compliment to the NOAA Weather Radio is the iMap Weather Radio Application that you can purchase on an iPhone or any Apple product. This application should be available for Android products in the near future. This application uses GPS technology and can alarm you when warnings are issued in your area by the National Weather Service. You can purchase this application, which is available through the iTunes store.
I can’t leave this subject without talking again – as I have before – about what to do in tornado weather if you live in a mobile home. As I said at the top of this post, the recent deaths in Woodward, Oklahoma might have been caused in part by lightning striking the town’s tornado sirens (it’s possible they never received a warning), but all six deaths did occur in a mobile home park. Cheap and affordable homes are great, but you should never stay in a mobile home during a tornado outbreak. If your area is under a moderate or high risk for severe storms and violent tornadoes for the day, immediately go to a sturdy, brick house. Visit your friends, family, or possibly go to a shelter area. Many of the deaths that have occurred already in 2012 by tornadoes have been from people staying in their mobile homes. If we can eliminate this, we would likely see fewer deaths.
The April 27, 2011 tornado in Alabama – and the May 22, 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri were extremely rare events where staying in a sturdy structure did not guarantee survival. If an EF-4 or EF-5 tornado with winds around 170 + miles per hour hit a house, the only way of surviving would be going into a basement or other underground structure. A bathroom or hallway might not be enough. With that said, violent tornadoes like these are extremely rare and typically never happen. Your chances of getting hit by a violent tornado (EF-4 to EF-5) are extremely small. Generally, roughly 70% of the tornadoes that form are weak (less than EF-2 strength), and getting into a bathroom or sturdy structure will protect your life. However, mobile homes cannot withstand even weak tornadoes.
Bottom line: Say no to tornado sirens! Get your tornado warnings at night through a NOAA Weather Radio, and not from outdoor sirens. Avoid staying in mobile homes if a tornado outbreak is likely in your area. Also, know your geography. What part of the county do you live in? Can you point on a map where some of the bigger cities are in relation to your home? If you know this, then you will have a much better idea of where a storm will go and how it could affect you. So, what are you waiting for? Call your retail store and see if they have NOAA Weather Radios. If they do, pick one up. It could save your life.
When he's not keeping EarthSky's community up-to-date on global weather happenings, meteorologist Matt Daniel is the weekend Meteorologist for 13WMAZ (CBS) in Macon, Georgia. He is also a freelance weather producer for CNN. He has contributed to articles to MSN Weather and worked with the National Weather Service. Matt graduated from The University of Georgia where he obtained a degree in Geography and a certificate in Atmospheric Sciences and Music Business. He has a passion for helping to keep people safe when severe weather strikes and says if you don't have a NOAA Weather Radio ... you should get one.