The apparent onset of enduring spring warmth across Minnesota also brings the likelihood of violent weather — a fitting coincidence for Severe Weather Awareness Week, which runs Monday through Friday.
In Hennepin County, emergency managers are putting a special focus on making schools ready to respond to warm-season storms, including tornadoes. Schools have long been well-protected against fire and more recently have strengthened their guard against intruders, while storm preparedness hasn't received the same attention, officials say.
Sarah Stalker, community engagement coordinator for Hennepin County who also has a degree in meteorology, said schools are vulnerable in storms because they hold large numbers of children and adults, most of whom aren't paying attention to the weather.
Minnesota has also been lucky in that regard, assistant state climatologist Pete Boulay said. Most of the strong tornadoes that bruise Minnesota occur in the summer, when schools might have fewer people in them, he said. The tornado that wiped out the high school in Wadena in 2010 occurred on June 17, a Thursday, at 4 p.m. No one was killed in the EF4 twister. The tornado that tore through St. Peter on March 29, 1998, took out eight buildings on the Gustavus Adolphus College campus but occurred during spring break.
Conversely, seven third-graders were killed when a tornado hit a school in Moore, Okla., last May.
Jeff Goldy, crisis management leader for the Hopkins public schools, said schools are required by law to have five fire drills and five lockdown drills each school year, but only one for severe weather.
Fear and risk
"Our risk of being hit by a tornado is far greater than having an intruder come in and shoot up the building," Goldy said. "The fear of that is greater, but the risk of occurrence is reversed."
Hopkins will hold two severe weather drills this year, exceeding the requirement. That's one reason it was recently certified by the National Weather Service as "StormReady" — the first district in the state to be certified. Minnesota has 30 StormReady sites, including Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Valleyfair, 11 counties and 10 small cities.
Goldy said the district trains and retrains staffers in all its buildings — administrators and kitchen workers included — in emergency responses. They're trained to receive cellphone alerts, program weather radios, use walkie-talkies, keep batteries fresh and even understand the owners' manuals. Select schools in each drill will undergo "enhanced" drills, with simulated property damage or injuries.
This year, based in part on the last year's tragedy in Moore, he's emphasizing that hallways, particularly those along exterior walls, can actually endanger people by collapsing. Long hallways can act as wind tunnels, he added, so Goldy is recommending simply that doors be closed at either end, if possible. Hopkins students and staffers will mostly be directed to interior hallways, classrooms (preferably small ones without windows) and even bathrooms.
"We declare all the bathrooms coed when we do it," he said.
Severe Weather Awareness Week will once again feature statewide tornado drills, scheduled for Thursday.
The first will feature a run-up from a tornado watch issued by the National Weather Service at 1 p.m. to a full-blown warning, including sirens, at 1:45 p.m. Radio and television stations will also carry simulated warnings. Wisconsin will have a drill at the same time.
Another drill will feature a warning at 6:55 p.m., intended to get families not at home during the day to think about procedures they might follow at home. All metro counties take part in the evening drill, but some other Minnesota counties may not.