The recent tornadoes in Oklahoma, which killed more than 40 people, convinced Minnesota safety experts that they still have work to do in educating people about severe weather warnings.
The most immediate lesson:
“Your car is your enemy,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, a tornado researcher and visiting professor of geography at the University of Minnesota. He was alluding to the fact that in Oklahoma City, many residents got stuck in traffic Friday as they tried to flee storms that killed at least 18 people, many of them in vehicles. Some drivers got trapped as motorists ahead of them stopped under bridges, thinking that was safe. Experts say wind speeds in tornadoes often increase under bridges.
When severe weather strikes in Minnesota this summer (there have been only two minor tornadoes so far), residents will encounter an experimental National Weather Service warning system that will emphasize the potential impact of storms. A tornado warning, for example, could state that an approaching tornado includes “a severe threat to human life and catastrophic damage.”
“Hopefully, when we do get a tornado day, people will be paying attention,” said Todd Krause, warning coordination meteorologist for the Twin Cities office of the Weather Service.
Krause said the five tornadoes that swept across the metro area on May 6, 1965, killing 13 people, could do even more damage today, given the expanded size of the metropolis and the massive increase in traffic.
Krause added that in Moore, Okla., where two dozen people died on May 20, home might have been the safest place in a situation with few safe options.
“I was amazed there were only 24 fatalities,” he said. “There was a great number of people in some kind of safe room or underground. In my mind, there’s absolutely no doubt those saved lives.”
Safe rooms — areas reinforced to withstand tornadoes, winds and flying debris — are not common features in Minnesota, where most homes have basements that can serve as sturdy storm shelters. But that may be changing, at least at the community level.
Minnesota now has three community safe rooms authorized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including a $1.3 million structure that doubles as a high school gym in Wadena, where an EF4 tornado destroyed the high school and more than 100 homes in 2010. That safe room can hold 1,100 people. Smaller ones have been approved for Paynesville Middle and High School, and for a recreation area near Lake Traverse in southwestern Minnesota.
The state Department of Homeland Security is notifying communities statewide that federal disaster funds are available for group safe rooms, using a 75-25 federal-local funding split. That could add a significant layer of protection from storms, said director Kris Eide.
Families need own plans
But residents need plans for finding adequate protection from tornadoes in their own homes, Eide said.
“I would like to see families have a plan. That’s more important to me than having safe rooms,” she said.
That means knowing where the best-protected places are and how to get there, she said. Although basements are the traditional shelter in Minnesota, popular walk-out basements do not offer adequate protection in tornadoes. Interior bathrooms are better.
Krause said that because cellphone service and Internet connections often fail in storms, traditional NOAA weather radios remain a reliable source of weather warning information.
Similarly, Jason Viana, preparedness director for the northern Minnesota region of the American Red Cross, noted that senior citizens might not be able to get to a basement or safe room as quickly as most people, and might be unfamiliar with many modern communication devices, or find them unworkable. Seniors should establish a “support network” of neighbors and relatives. They should give their phone number to at least three people who can check on them, and give a house key to neighbors.