It was a really big thunderstorm early this morning in the metro, as you may know if you're in the metro and capable of losing a good night's sleep.
Around 4:30, the thunder and lightning were nonstop, the rain was ridiculous, and the wind was threatening to push the deck furniture around.
In between all of that, I thought I heard the sirens going off in my suburban paradise, so I headed to the window and opened it to confirm. Indeed, they were.
"It must be a tornado warning," I said to my wife, who immediately relocated to the downstairs guest room.
I, on the other hand, headed for the weather radio and sat through an endless series of warnings for parts of the state in which I don't live. I'd turned the "alarm" function of the radio off a few nights ago when it went off every few minutes, waking me to tell me that things might get dicey in the middle of nowhere somewhere.
It took a minute or so, during which time the smartphone weather app revealed a blob of pink over our fair city, but finally the weather radio coughed up the warning for my area. There was no tornado threat; there was a wind threat, something that was pretty obvious by the faceful of rain I got when I opened the window.
There were only a few reports of damage by then -- the report of a large tree down in South Saint Paul, some damage in Prior Lake, and some leaves shredded by hail in Scott County.
As MPR's Paul Huttner wrote on Friday, sirens are primarily for people outdoors, and the new rules for sirens say they will be blown now not only for tornadoes, but also for the possibility of winds over 70 mph.
Weatherpeople are in a difficult spot here. If they don't sound the sirens and there is damage, people will want to know why they didn't sound the sirens. And yet, when the sirens sound, people get out of bed and huddle in the basement, and then the deck furniture ends up exactly where they left it, there's a sense of a false alarm, leading to the possibility of ignoring future sirens.
There's a danger, of course, to doing that. Many people in last year's deadly tornado in Joplin ignored warning sirens. And high winds from thunderstorms can be as damaging as a tornado, but tornadoes take you by surprise; a thunderstorm -- severe or not -- announces itself well ahead of time, and when a lightning bolt hits within a mile or so of where you're trying to get some sleep, that's a lot more effective than a siren that you can almost make out amid the cacophony of thunder, wind, and rain.
During the height of the storm, South St. Paul recorded wind gusts of 38 mph, Lakeville reported 54 mph, and downtown Saint Paul recorded highest wind of 40 mph. There was a 63 mph gust at Stanton Airport near Northfield, and 55 mph winds reported at Faribault. There's no report -- that I can find -- of 70 mph winds.
When a siren goes off at the height of a thunderstorm, there's only one thing I want to know: Is there a tornado embedded within it? Presently, there's no siren system to quickly give me that answer.
Wondering if the new smart phone ap from National Weather Service will address some of your issue with sirens (which always intended as warning of last resort) Bob?
I tend focus on the fact that the siren system is designed to alert people outdoors about upcoming threats and that the potential for high winds is a greater issue for them than someone indoors.
It's usually easy enough to check a weather app/twitter if I want to see the radar or check specifically for tornado warnings.
I live near Dakota County, who has the policy of blowing the sirens for all severe thunderstorm warnings. They used to do it on a county-wide basis, although I think they have backed off on that one. Who wants to hear a siren for a storm miles away on the other end of the county? As a resident of St. Paul in Ramsey Country, I get rather irritated by the siren Dakota Co. controls that is placed right on the border, a few blocks from my house. I've gotten to the point where I completely ignore weather sirens when I'm at home. They went off at least twice, maybe three times last night for a lot of rain and some wind. First time they went off I made sure it wasn't a tornado warning, next time I just rolled over and went to bed without checking.
Point to clarify Bob, the weather service doesn't have any control over the sirens, they are controlled by the local authority, usually the county sheriff's department. The weather service only issues the warnings, it's up to the agency controlling the sirens to set policy on using the sirens. The tight spot that the weather people are in isn't whether or not to sound sirens, it's that they are not even in control while they still get all the blame.
I did when I lived in Ottertail County and they sounded the siren for a Tornado warning, but now living in Dakota county, they sound the siren when a Severe Thunderstorm Warning is issued. Granted, I can't really ignore the siren as one is located very close to our home, but I feel that Dakota County residents get easily lulled into the false alarm with the siren going off during thunderstorms. We hear the siren and then have to listen to the radio or watch the TV to see what kind of warning we're in.
I have a weather radio coming in with SAME technology and I hope that will help with each siren.
Upon hearing the sirens, I immediately went to Public Television's weather channel (244 on our cable setup) and found that the severe thunderstorm warning was south of our part of the suburban paradise. So, I let my wife continue sleeping in the palatial master bedroom fifteen feet above ground level, while I monitored the radar picture until the storm had passed.
Not sure where you're getting your weather data. There was a gust of 83 mph in Belle Plaine. Downtown Saint Paul reported 64, not 40.
I'd say that's good enough for sirens.
And since you were already awake, you realized that the radio was now irrelevant. I don't know why you would sit and wait for a relevant warning anyway when you have a smartphone.
"When a siren goes off at the height of a thunderstorm, there's only one thing I want to know: Is there a tornado embedded within it? Presently, there's no siren system to quickly give me that answer."
What?! A tornado warning can be issued when there is evidence of rotation; a warning does not require that a tornado is "embedded" in the storm. In fact, by that time, it's probably too late!
I want to know when there's rotation. I want to know when a tornado is possible. Waiting to sound the sirens until a tornado is on the ground is too late.
I voted "other" in the poll because my tendency when I hear the siren is to look for more information. Chances are if it is during the day/evening and I've got either the TV on or Internet up, I've checked the weather options because of the look of the sky.
// Not sure where you're getting your weather data.
National Weather Service Twin Cities. I've seen the report via Twitter of the gust in Belle Plaine but have not seen any attribution. Meanwhile the top gust at nearby Glencoe was 36.
//warning anyway when you have a smartphone.
You probably have better eyes than i do but at 4:30 in the morning, trying to translate my little dot on that little map to the color is a little difficult. I do like the idea of personalized smartphone notifications that I've heard are coming.
But, in the end, I tend to think that -- other than tornades -- we depend too much on technology to tell us what's going on on the other side of the window.
I do a lot of camping and have worked at a boy scout camp that has its own tornado siren.
The biggest threat, as you said, are people outside. If I was camping and the type of severe storm like last night happened I would have wanted some type of warning to seek shelter. We have the same problems at the boy scout camp I worked at. Many times it isn't that serious, but the chance that the storm could change directions and bring a funnel right over the camp is always real. It reminds me of the camp in Iowa that lost some scouts to a tornado that went through. Most of the staff hate the siren because it usually means that the weather won't be that bad and we huddle in hot, sweaty rooms for nothing. However there was a time when they sounded the siren and a scout came out of his tent when he heard it, and a couple seconds later a tree fell on his tent.
There should be better warnings in two respects.
1. More local warnings. Living in Duluth I received a tornado warning via my phone for St Louis Co. while it was still sunny. A more precise warning might give out a better sense of urgency because when you hear it, you know it's close.
2. Maybe there should be two "sounds" or types of sirens. One would be for high winds (or hail) for people outdoors, and another could be for tornadoes.
// So, I let my wife continue sleeping
As far I'm concerned, the story here is that you're married to someone who could sleep through that racket.
//Maybe there should be two "sounds" or types of sirens. One would be for high winds (or hail) for people outdoors, and another could be for tornadoes.
In my milltown in which I grew up, we didn't have sirens; we had the factory whistles. The pattern would indicate the "emergency."
There was nothing sweeter than three short blasts repeated a few times: No school.
I have onguardweather alerts installed on my phone.
It did sound last night for the warnings (does not sound for watches with my configuration).
My only complaint is not being able to configure what warnings I want to hear where. I.e. in my house I have no fear of flood warnings, but when driving I might.
I can't hear the sirens, so they're not much use to me one way or the other.
I'm just grateful that Channel 5 didn't have to break into an NBA Finals game to let us know it was raining outside.
Your greatest chance of dying from the weather is from exposure to the cold, but they don't set off the sirens when it's 20° below. This storm/tornado thing is a TV-created phenomenon wherein overpaid weather people do their best to panic old people and shut ins.
Like Snyder, we don't hear the sirens for my county. This is a drastic change from growing up in Fridley, where the fear of tornadoes was ingrained into me by my father and his family. But I also live across the river from Dakota County and they blow the sirens all the time. We can hear these but not for Pierce County. So I really haven't got a clue of what to do until I check our computer or TV radar.
This method works until the power doesn't (I'm a late adapter so no smartphone or weather radio). So we default to our other weather alert. Our dog. Dooley works better than any weather alert. He need to bury himself under our pillows-which is a great way to be woke up. (No-thunder jacket don't work)
I wasn't planning to dive in to the comments on this post until I saw pictures of the damage to our friends trees. They live just a 1/2 mile south of our house. The damage was massive, although they are fortunate that none of the trees fell on to their house.
We need to remember that the sirens are a warning and just that. It doesn't matter what the method-tornado or strong winds, both have the ability to uproot trees, launch projectiles, and send what ever it can through the window you happen to be looking out of. You may not be outside at 4:30am, but the guy fixing your power lines may be or it may be that crazy neighbor trying to get the dogs to go out before the storm.
Assess the situation for your location-is the ground so soaked that trees can be easily uprooted? Do you live in a heavily wooded area where there are a number of projectiles to be sent into the air?
That said, it was an amazing sight early this morning and in hindsight I should have been in my basement.
I'm with JackU - we need to change the expectations of co-workers, friends, and families. "Tornado sirens" should be "seek more information" devices. I'm floored that people are fine with passing off their personal well-being to whomever is in charge of turning on and off the sirens. Safety is a personal responsibility, and staying knowledgeable of the weather (or earthquakes, or hurricanes, or avalanches, or...) is part of that safety.
// should be "seek more information" devices.
Again, I have to ask the obvious question. What is it that looking out the window doesn't tell you that some technical device is going to tell you? The wind is howling, the hail is falling (hail being a sign of an EXTREMELY unstable atmopshere), lightning is hitting a mile away.
What do people think is going on in that situation?
Of course, I also want to know how many people are outside at 4:30 in the morning, but that's more to satisfy my own curiosity than anything else.
I just found out from my aunt and my dad that my Grandmother's apartment building in Hastings (right behind Target) sustained major structural damage (losing part of the roof) at 4:30. It was either straight line winds or worse. So, for once, those annoying sirens in Dakota County paid off.
//What is it that looking out the window doesn't tell you that some technical device is going to tell you?
I guess my response is that it's a "head-up" alert to something that is 10-15 minutes away. I can't tell the difference between storm clouds that contain a thunderstorm, and storm clouds that contain a thunderstorm + tornado. Having a siren go off signals to me that it's likely that there's a tornado or something else bad involved.
But you're preaching to the choir. I've got 3 weather apps on my phone. I know about warnings before the sirens go off!
// I guess my response is that it's a "head-up" alert to something that is 10-15 minutes away
Which brings us back to the problem of firing the sirens in the middle of an existing storm AND not having a system in place that defines the nature of the emergency.
Theoretically, the sirens shouldn't need to serve as a "go look elsewhere for the important information." The frequency of lightning, the sky, etc all serve the same purpose that served people well for hundreds of years.
Somewhere in all of this, there's an opportunity for some solid anthropology and sociology experiments.
// I tend focus on the fact that the siren system is designed to alert people outdoors...
Someone who is outdoors gets plenty of warning by the darkening sky, lightning and thunder. Sirens are more helpful for those who do not have a view of the sky. When unexpected sirens sound, I seek information elsewhere. Sometimes that means having a look at the sky. Frequently, I already know weather is approaching.