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Tornado warnings saved lives, but sirens aren't enough (+video)

Tornado sirens aren't designed to awaken residents and aren't fail-proof, as Woodward, Okla. learned. What tornado warnings were effective this past weekend.

By Grant Schulte and Sean MurphyAssociated Press / April 16, 2012

Trish Ford, of Woodward, Okla., looks for personal papers for a friend whose office was destroyed by a tornado April 15, 2012. Clean-up efforts were underway across the Midwest after dozens of tornadoes tore through the region, killing six people in Oklahoma.

REUTERS/Jeff Tuttle


Woodward, Okla.

When a tornado shrouded in darkness and wrapped in rain dropped quickly from the sky above this northwest Oklahoma town, many residents relied on television weathermen to warn them of impending devastation. Others learned of the monster twister from neighbors or calls from frantic relatives.

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More than 100 tornadoes swept the Midwest this past weekend

One backup they couldn't count on was the town's 20 outdoor tornado sirens, which were knocked out when lightning struck a tower used to activate the warning system.

The storms, which caused multiple outbreaks of severe weather most of Sunday from Kansas to Minnesota, were part of an exceptionally strong system tracked by the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which specializes in tornado forecasting. The center took the unusual step of warning people more than 24 hours in advance of a possible "high-end, life-threatening event."

IN PICTURES: Extreme Weather 2012

In the end, only the Woodward tornado proved fatal. While it's unknown whether the disabled sirens contributed to the toll in Woodward, residents and officials in hard-hit areas of Kansas, Iowa and elsewhere credited days of urgent warnings from forecasters for saving lives.

"We can't do this with every event," said the prediction center's Ken Miller, noting that many storm systems are not as easy to predict whether they will be a potential threat to life and property.

Miller said he was pleased the warnings were heeded.

"We measure our success by how the public reacts," he said. "Do they take precautions seriously and act on them?"

In south central Kansas, Sedgwick County Emergency Management Director Randy Duncan credited the dire language warnings for saving lives.

"People become used to those warnings. That is a dangerous complacency," Duncan said. "We need to break through the clutter of everyday noise to get people's attention."

The warnings had Larry Hill's attention. The 72-year-old sifted Sunday through glass and debris of his home. Hours earlier, Hill had barricaded himself in a closet as a tornado ripped the roof off his home in the southwest Iowa town of Thurman. He kept a close ear on their television as Saturday night approached, and had bought extra groceries the night before.

"We'd been on the lookout for it for three days," he said. "... We were as ready as we could have been."

A National Weather Service official said a "month's worth" of tornados were spotted Sunday in Kansas. About 100 homes were damaged in a Wichita mobile home, but no serious injuries or fatalities were reported.

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