Tornado preparedness urged

In the wake of Sunday's tragic tornadoes, will people realize it's crucial to prepare?

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | November 10, 2005

"I think the great enemy that we have is complacency."

—Buzz Weiss

In the wake of Sunday's tragic tornadoes, will people realize it's crucial to prepare?

Emergency managers hope so. Currently only about 20 percent of Americans own a weather radio. Buzz Weiss, spokesperson for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, thinks that number is way too low.

The battery-powered, tone-alert radios go on automatically when the National Weather Service (NWS) issues a severe weather advisory. Weather radios generally cost $35 to $70 and are sold by electronics shops, department stores and other retailers. There are many brands, but most include the words "all-hazard radio" or "weather radio" on the packaging. The radios are also known as NOAA weather radios, named for NWS's parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Purchasing a weather radio is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of injury or death when a tornado hits, said Weiss. "It's a small investment but it can save lives. It should be an integral part of any family disaster plan."

But as people in Evansville, Ind., pointed out, it's not a guarantee of safety. NWS officials there are investigating reports by some people - including Evansville's police and fire officials - that special radios failed to pick up a tornado alert 10 minutes before Sunday's deadly twister struck. People have reported that an older, less sophisticated radio did not pick up the alarms.

Even so, Weiss believes, if more people had owned weather radios in Indiana, the death toll may not have been as high. The tornado killed 22 people on Sunday.

"Now, we don't know how many did or did not have a weather radio," admitted Weiss. "But I think it's a fair assumption, and I would be very comfortable saying that many of the lives that had been lost could have been saved had people had these tone-alert NOAA weather radios."

Given that most emergency management officials say weather radios are as important as smoke detectors, why don't more people own them?

They're complacent, said Weiss. "I think the great enemy that we have - whether we're talking about severe weather or terrorism or anything - is complacency. People say: 'I'm not going to worry about that, we're not going to have a tornado.' They say: 'Oh, I'll buy one next year.' "

The alert system is being expanded for use in non-weather emergencies, from Amber Alerts for missing children to terrorist attacks.

Weiss and others said they've repeatedly emphasized the importance of emergency radios - and that people are slowly getting the message.

"What we have found is we really need to remind people over and over and over again that these are critical," said Weiss.

For weather radios to work, a community must have access to a weather radio transmitter system. Currently about 95 percent of the American population resides in areas reached by a transmitter. The NWS works through partnerships with local and state organizations to purchase and install the transmitters, which are operated and maintained by the NWS.

"We have expanded the NOAA radio network here in Georgia," said Weiss. "It covers 98 percent of the state's population."

Even with a weather radio on hand, it's important to know what to do when a tornado does approach, pointed out Weiss.

"The most important thing is to take shelter in a sturdy, secure location, preferably a basement. If a basement isn't available, go to the most interior location on the lowest floor in a building. If you're outside, find a sturdy building. If one isn't available, lie down in a ditch, in the lowest place possible. If you're in a vehicle, don't stay in it. Most deaths - well, virtually all the deaths - that occur in a tornado are caused by debris. Make yourself a small target and don't get struck by debris."

If you reside in a mobile home, don't stay, he added. "Here again, the most significant thing residents can do is pay attention to weather warnings they see on TV and hear on the radio. If they have that NOAA weather radio, in the event a storm approaches overnight, they will have that warning. If they do get that warning, they need to get out of that mobile home."

On a more collective level, another way to prepare for tornadoes and other severe weather is to become a designated "StormReady" community. StormReady is a nationwide NWS community preparedness program that uses a grassroots approach to help communities develop plans to handle all types of severe weather.

Currently there are 514 StormReady counties and 454 StormReady communities across 48 states.

To be officially StormReady, a community must:

* Establish a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center

* Have more than one way to receive severe weather warnings and forecasts and to alert the public

* Create a system that monitors weather conditions locally

* Promote the importance of public readiness through community seminars

* Develop a formal hazardous weather plan, which includes training severe weather spotters and holding emergency exercises.

"We have to take a lot of aggressive, proactive efforts in this regard," said Weiss. "The public has to take some personal responsibility."

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