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.
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"We knew well ahead of time that this was going to be ugly. People listened" to the warnings, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton said.Skip to next paragraph
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The Woodward tornado hit after midnight and without warning from the town's knocked out siren system.
The state medical examiner's office identified the victims as Frank Hobbie and his 5-year-old and 7-year-old daughters, who died when the tornado hit the mobile home park, and Darren Juul and a 10-year-old girl who died when the home they were in a few miles away was hit. Office spokeswoman Amy Elliot said no other details were available but said a critically hurt child was airlifted to a Texas hospital.
Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said early Monday that a sixth person had died following the Woodward tornado, although she could not immediately provide details of the victim's age or gender, nor of the circumstances of the death.
"Our thoughts and prayers just go out to the families that have lost their loved ones, especially the children," said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who declared a state of emergency Sunday after touring the damage. "It's always devastating to hear about the loss of life of children."
Many residents in tornado alley have grown up counting on tornado sirens to warn them when a twister has been spotted on the ground, but emergency officials say that can be one of the least reliable methods, especially when a tornado hits at night.
"An outdoor warning system should never be the only way or even the primary way to receive a warning," said Rick Smith, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "Our message that we preach is you have to have several ways to receive a warning."
Curt and Andra Raymer had taken steps to prepare for the storm, but thought they were in the clear when a television meteorologist warned residents to take cover just minutes before the storm hit.
"We heard the sirens yesterday afternoon, and they blew for 40 minutes," said Andra Raymer, 44, as she picked through the rubble of her home that was covered with insulation, broken glass and splintered wood. "Last night when this one came through, we didn't hear anything."
The couple and their dogs took shelter in an interior bathroom as the roof was lifted from their home and smashed in their backyard.
"We're just lucky to be alive," Curt Raymer said. "We walked out into the street and just couldn't believe it."
Emergency management officials urged residents to take advantage of weather radios, smartphones and television warnings to keep them up to speed when weather turns dangerous. Sirens are not designed to wake residents who are sleeping or to penetrate the thick insulation in today's homes, said Albert Ashwood, the director of Oklahoma's Office of Emergency Management.
"Sirens are referred to as outdoor warning systems, and that's what they're there for: to tell people who are outdoors to come inside and find out what's going on," Ashwood said.
Associated Press writer Roxanna Hegeman in Wichita, Kan., contributed to this report.