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Many prepare for tornadoes

New technology and education are helping communities get ready for tornado season.


"This area has a high frequency of tornadoes."

—Chuck Hoffman

New technology, education, and plain common sense are helping communities around the country get ready for tornado season.

Tornado forecasting is improving with the help of new technology. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) will soon test a new type of radar that would dramatically improve storm data. The phased array radar produces high-speed electronic beams that can be sent into a storm to retrieve more accurate results than current radars.

"It's based on Navy technology developed by Lockheed Martin," said Doug Forsyth, NSSL's chief of radar research and development division. "It would help predict more tornadoes with its speed and higher resolutions."

Forsyth added that the NSSL is pleased to have the cooperation of the Navy, Lockheed Martin, the University of Oklahoma, and the Federal Aviation Administration in building the facilities needed to test the radar. "It's quite a collaborative effort," he said.

Yet Forsyth said the phased array radar is a long-term project not expected to be put into use for another ten years or so.

What is closer to being used by weather forecasters around the country is the dual-polarization radar, which Forsyth said should be implemented in 2007. "Dual-polarization radar is useful because it allows us to receive both horizontal and vertical waves of information about storms," he said. "Right now, radar only offers one wave at a time - so it's harder for us to measure rainfall size and amount."

Forsyth said dual-polarization would mean they wouldn't have to infer hail, they would actually be able to measure it.

In the time between now and 2007, Forsyth said the NSSL is improving its use of current radar with new algorithms and radar pulse techniques. "We're working to increase the range and rate of data we obtain so we can detect storms that are farther away," he said. "Our goal is to send out tornado warnings 45 minutes prior."

So how should the public prepare when they hear the warning sirens? Fire departments across the country are educating their communities with "Tornado Safety Homes."

In Council Bluffs, Iowa, the fire department takes the safety house to local schools and businesses.

"Ours is a fire and severe weather simulator," said Bob Martin, Council Bluffs Fire Department public education officer. "But this time of year we use it for the tornado simulation."

Martin said groups enter the home a 32-foot trailer bought with grant assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - and sit in seats before the television. "They watch a regular TV program, but then a tornado watch breaks in, and then a tornado warning," he said. "Then the power goes out, things shake, and the sound of a tornado is heard."

He said the group experiences what a tornado is like so they can know how to prepare. "I do a safety presentation and the kids or adults ask questions," said Martin. "It's been extremely well-received. The kids really enjoy it."

He added that tornado survivors who've been through the simulation say it's just like what they experienced. "Some have been really shaken when it was over," Martin said. "And they all agree that it's very realistic."

Chuck Hoffman, chief of the Grand Island Rural Fire Department in Nebraska, said his department's safety house is very effective. "It stresses the different kinds of alerts and how to seek the correct shelter depending on where you are," he said.

Hoffman said the whole fire department thought the safety house, also purchased with grants from FEMA, would be a great benefit to the community. "This area has a high frequency of tornadoes," he said. "We wanted to do something for the community."

From storm education to storm plans, some communities are already building their plans. "Doing something for the community" is a phrase the owner of Johanna Woods Mobile Home Development is familiar with. The private-owned planned community in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, will soon see two above-ground tornado shelters on the property.

"We did a survey of the residents to see what amenity they wanted most, and the response was overwhelmingly 'storm shelters,'" said Charlotte Brady, the accredited community manager. "The owner looked at how dedicated the residents have been to him and the community - and agreed to build the shelters."

The $250,000 shelters are situated at the north and south ends of the property and will be "state-of-the-art." "They'll have cable and satellite TV's so storms can be monitored, they'll have air conditioning, and all the essentials," said Brady. "We followed the FEMA guide on how to properly build a storm shelter."

This means the shelters can withstand both a blow from an object going 125 miles-per-hour and winds of 225 miles-per-hour. Brady said the residents are excited to see the structures going up so quickly.

"One will be done within two to three weeks, and the other will be done shortly after that," she said. "The residents feel very appreciative of the owner spending so much money to make them safe."

Keeping yourself safe during storms is the key, said Forsyth. This tornado season, he gave three tips for being ready.

"Everyone should have a plan so you know what to do when a tornado comes - know where to go, how to react," he said. "One should also have some kind of alert system nearby - and that could be a NOAA radio that can be programmed to go off when severe weather is in your area." Forsyth said NOAA radios are very affordable and are available in most electronics stores.

The third tip is to know your geography. "Looking at maps and being familiar with your surroundings definitely helps," said Forsyth. "You should always be aware of the location of any tornadoes if you're out in severe weather."

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