Posted at 9:26 AM on May 29, 2012
by Paul Huttner
Blustery and refreshingly cooler today
Gusty winds W-NW 15-30 mph today
Whitecaps on Minnesota lakes today
Quick look forecast: (Click to enlarge)
9.34" May rainfall at MSP Airport
4" to 7" rainfall reports near Brainerd last weekend
Docks under water on Gull Lake Chain near Brainerd
Drought to flood in 3 weeks in a good chunk of Minnesota
Sirens sounded Sunday around the metro, but what did they mean?
April Flashback: Free AC this week
Just when you thought summer might take hold Sunday with temps in the 90s, our next cold front swept in with vivid lightning, thunder, heavy rain and a cooler breeze.
We'll (enjoy?) free AC this week. Look for gusty winds today, and sizeable waves and whitecaps on Minnesota lakes. Cool air aloft will keep the atmosphere irritable, and that means puffy white cumulus clouds will build as the day wears on. Showers will be numerous in northern Minnesota, and scattered in the south. Don't like the sky/weather? Just wait 15 minutes and it will change today.
From drought to flood in 3 short weeks
We've just witnessed a remarkable turn of weather events in Minnesota. We've literally gone from drought and high fire danger, to flood...with rivers spilling over and docks under water in just 3 weeks in a good chunk of Minnesota.
This is already the wettest may on record for several Minnesota locations. Floodwood, Mora, Chanhassen and Forest Lake have broken May rainfall records with over 9" of rain this month. The 9.34" at MSP Airport ranks as the 2nd wettest, just about 1" behind the wettest May (10.33") in 1906.
The Brainerd area was the target for heavy rainfall last weekend. The Gull lake Chain rose quickly and created instant "floating docks" at the LSVA condo complex on Lake Margaret on the Gull Chain. There's a lot of extra work for lakeshore owners this year in Minnesota with rapidly rising water levels!
Check out how quickly Minnesota has gone from drought to flood.
91% of Minnesota in drought (D1-D4) on April 3rd
60% of Minnesota in drought on May 1st
10% of Minnesota in drought as of May 8th
Numerous Flood Warnings and docks under water on May 27th
This is why it's dangerous (and not scientifically credible) to blast out headlines touting any specific weather pattern (drought/flood/cold/snow) will last for days, weeks, months, all of 2012 etc. The "state of the science" of meteorology just doesn't allow us to say what weather patterns will hold for a month, summer or season. Last winter's record warmth after predictions of a bitterly cold winter, and this spring's rapid turnaround are proof.
Weather in Minnesota can turn on a dime. We've literally gone from 0 to 60, from one "extreme" to another in a few days in Minnesota this year!
Sunday Sirens: What did they mean?
Sunday's storms blew up pretty quickly. I was out on Lake Minnetonka Sunday afternoon with a few hundred other "boating enthusiasts" as cumulus towers began to build and the skies began to darken to the south.
We headed for shore, and by the time we got home the sirens were sounding in Excelsior. There were also reports of sirens blaring in Eden Prairie and Minneapolis.
I was a bit surprised by this, as no tornado warnings had been issued, no funnels or tornadoes had been sighted. My son was also on the lake, and called me confused as to why the sirens were going off. Several MPR listener tweets Sunday expressed the same confusion. Sirens were blaring, but what did they mean?
(By the way I really appreciate the specific reports and tweets during severe weather! I hope you understand I'm seriously multi tasking and can't possibly reply to most of them during live severe weather coverage.)
Sunday was a great example of why I believe siren policy in Minnesota has to change. Sirens around Minnesota are owned and operated by local communities or counties, not the State of Minnesota or the NWS. Local communities make the call on when...and why to sound the sirens. That makes for a confusing patchwork of reasons that you may hear a siren during severe weather.
Did Sunday's sirens mean get off the lake? Did it mean there was a tornado? A severe thunderstorm warning? Enemy attack? Chemical spill? The sirens created quite a bit of confusion Sunday at a time when clarity of message was needed.
That's why I feel strongly that we need to look at developing a uniform policy for sounding sirens in Minnesota. When we hear a siren, we should know what it means. Why not develop a uniform policy that tells people exactly what a siren means?
We have the capability to sound different types of siren alerts. We could conceivably come up with a few simple siren alerts that have clear meaning. Short burst = local/national emergency or enemy attack? Long 3 minute wail = damaging winds or tornado? etc.
I don't pretend to have all the answers today, but it seems an initiative from state and local Homeland Security, NWS, and media could come up with a simple, easy to understand uniform siren code so that everybody will know what a siren means when we hear it. Why not convene a "siren committee" to come up with the next generation of siren alerts? (Sirens 2.0)
We could then trot out a PR campaign with a nifty little jingle to help the public remember. Does anyone remember the "Weatherball" song?
I would be happy to lend some of my energy, MPR air time and Updraft blog space to promote a new siren policy that makes sense for Minnesota.
It's 2012 people. We have smart phones that can basically cook you breakfast, cable/satellite/high speed broadband, WiFi and even robotic Roomba vacuums that will buzz about and clean your floors while you sleep.
Maybe it's time to look at bringing our "siren policy" into the 21st century?
What do you think? Here's a chance to let our siren policy makers at the local and state level know.
Absolutely we need to be utilizing cell phone technology for storm warnings.
If Japan can have an earthquake warning app on their phones, why is there not something standard here? I have an alert system from my college that texts me when there is an emergency on campus. There is an alert system from my bank that texts me when I reach a threshold for my account.
Why can't there be something that, based on which cell tower you're currently in contact with, would text your phone that there is a thunderstorm warning, a tornado warning, whatever.
Heck, on the Droid, there is already an Emergency Alerts app that comes pre-installed, and the Presidential alerts can't be disabled. I have it enabled currently (it has Amber alerts, too), but I've yet to receive any alerts.
Excellent point. It's called "WEA" and it's coming in June. More on that in this afternoon's Updraft post.
It seems like the county commissioners in Hennepin county should take a look at creating a uniform, common sense set of siren guidelines such as forecasted thunderstorm wind speed. They could also utilize the siren's attack mode for tornado warnings to differentiate from the standard wail mode.
In St. Paul the city just spent a great deal of money to put up brand new Federal Signal sirens to replace their still-reliable but outdated fleet of Thunderbolts. I haven't even yet heard them sounded for a storm. I guess that's how they get the mileage out of each purchase: to sound for serious thunderstorms & tests only.
Linda, I have an app on my driod called "OnGuard Weather Alerts" That seems to do pretty well at notifying me of things... Woke me up this weekend for a flood warning, I did have to change the settings to not sound a siren alert for watches, but other then that it's very good for weather.
Amber alerts and other warnings I do not have an answer for But I'm guessing there is a third party making something to do similar.
My concern about cell phones is that they are not a 100% connected device, They are have batteries that die, and signals that drop. So we shouldn't assume they are robust enough to be our singular notifications systems in an emergency.
The sirens serve an important purpose of notifying people something is happening, what is happening should be the responsibly of the radio, tv, smart phone, internet, and all the other methods we have of communicating now a days. Even a 911 type number that some one could call to get a recorded message of why the sirens are sounding in their area might be a step up. (or text for those with that preference)
All excellent ideas.
To be clear, there are plenty of "pay" cell phone weather apps out there and there are already free ways to get warnings sent to your phone. WEA will be free when it rolls out. The sirens are a completely different animal. How do we make them work best?
I'm in agreement that there needs to be a uniform system across the metro and that there should only be full-blown siren warnings for tornado warnings. Sounding the sirens for severe thunderstorm warnings just adds to the complacency and apathy that so many have been talking about in the last year now.
Dakota county sounds sirens for every warning and I believe they have my entire life. Before smart phones, whenever I'd hear the sirens I would check to see what's going on either via TV or the internet before I'd take shelter - which isn't necessarily smart, but who wants to run inside and take cover every time the sirens sound when the majority of the time it's just a severe thunderstorm warning? I don't need the sirens to tell me it's about to hail and get windy. I need a siren to tell me there's a tornado.
Sounding sirens for both just confuses people and adds to siren apathy.
But there are big problems with this theoretical "uniform siren policy." For starters, the general public complains when sirens are sounded and nothing happens. They complain even louder when there's a tornado but no siren (or the siren is late).
The North Minneapolis tornado last year spun up very quickly. The sirens technically went off before the tornado started destroying things, but there wasn't much warning. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there were either no sirens or no tornado warning when the 2006 Rogers tornado killed a child. You cannot logically blame the NWS for this, though people still do.
Somebody has to make a judgment call on when to activate the sirens. I'd rather have too many sirens than not enough. Maybe the sirens' meaning could shift from "hey, there's a tornado on your house!" to "pay attention to the weather right now!" We can fix the boy-who-cried-wolf problem this way.
But let's look beyond sirens. People need to educate themselves about weather; if we learned anything over the past year (and we no doubt have not), it's that the weather in Minnesota can and will be very dynamic and, at times, unpredictable. Once people realize this, they will learn to pay more attention. Right now, most people are oblivious to the weather. Trying to fix our siren policy will not alleviate that.
Now, I realize that not everyone is a weather geek like me, and not everyone compulsively watches the radar when storms approach. But we all need to be mindful of the weather, especially when it turns threatening.
Sirens emit a rotating wail every 15 seconds or something like that. I think they are best for a general signal of something wrong. But sometimes they are difficult to hear indoors. The best complement is weather radio. We can't eliminate human attention and judgment from the situation. So, no matter what method of signal, people need to 1)observe, 2)orient, 3)decide, and 4) act. Technology won't do that for us. Human responsibility is always necessary.
Good forecasting call last Monday night for the 100% heavy rain on Wednesday night(I think that was the time frame). I admit I had my doubts about that one at the time.
Allow me to comment on the siren discussion. I am the Director of Emergency Management for Hennepin County. Last month the Metro county emergency management directors, plus the directors of the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul discussed siren activation standards at the National Weather Service in Chanhassen.
We arrived at an activation criteria to sound Outdoor Warning Sirens when the National Weather Service warns us that winds of 70 MPH or greater are expected as part of a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. Of course, we also sound the sirens for Tornado Warnings. We do not sound sirens for hail.
We decided on 70 MPH because it appeared to be a speed where the threat to life and limb increased significantly. The NWS uses a lower wind speed (58 MPH) as a threshold for severe thunderstorm warnings based on likely property damage at airports and other wind-sensitive areas. The higher 70 MPH criteria for sirens also seemed appropriate because it fit well with start of other wind scale definitions of deadly winds in the form of Hurricanes and Tornadoes. All but two metro counties are using the 70 MPH siren standard right now.
It is very important that everyone understand that Outdoor Warning Sirens are just one part of a two part direct warning system. The other part is NOAA Weather Radio. Outdoor Warning Sirens are intended to warn you while you are outside, perhaps engaged in recreational activities. NOAA Weather Radios are designed to both warn and inform you when you are inside. When you are outside and hear a siren you should take two simple steps, 1) get inside, and 2) get information. Sirens can only warn you, you must take the next step and get more information on what is happening and what you should do next.
There is no perfect, single warning device that meets the needs of all people, at all times, in all circumstances. Too many unexpected things can happen during disasters to put our faith in any one, or even two, technologies. We need sirens, weather radios, smart phones, social and broadcast media all sending the same message. Even more important, we need people to understand what to do once the message gets to them.
Some additional siren items that may be of interest. There are two different siren tones. The first is a rising and falling tone that indicates an attack or national security emergency (the original purpose of the sirens). The second is the steady tone we use for severe weather or other disaster situation. Sirens are sounded for five minutes. During this time you should have found shelter inside and begun gathering information from another source. Sirens do not sound an "all clear." At this point you are supposed to be inside (and unable to hear the outdoor sirens) and also should be getting information from another source (radio, TV, etc) to decide whether it is clear to come out.
To add to our confusion on Saturday, in Chaska the sirens sounded once, for the duration of one rising then falling tone - and then not again. Just enough time for us all to look at each other and say "did you hear a siren?" We knew there was a severe thunderstorm warning (weather radio), but were not sure why the siren sounded just once. So I went online and tried to find out - and could not locate any information on when and why sirens sounded in Chaska/Carver County.
There needs to be a uniform policy!
Also, I am a homecare nurse. I am all over the cities every day. I have no clue when I am in a different city what the sirens mean.
A plug for the tweets from @MPRweather - I signed up for them on Friday and although the 45+ tweets I got on Saturday were a bit much at times, it was very helpful for keeping on top of the rapidly changing conditions.
Thank you for your comments and additional info on sirens in the metro. I applaud the trend to move toward a more uniform siren policy.
1) The move to tornado warnings + 70mph criteria is a change this year. How was this communicated to the public and to broadcast meteorologists? I was at the IWT meeting last month and this came up...but nobody communicated any changes in policy.
2) Which 2 metro counties do not use the 70mph criteria, and why? Our listeners and residents of those counties need to know what they are hearing during severe weather.
If you read this blog and listen to my broadcasts on MPR, you know we talk ad nausium about "multiple safety nets" and NOAA weather radio, sirens as an outdoor warning system/last resort etc. We also just aired a substantial project with KARE11 this month that covered multiple safety points.
This post is about sirens. There still seems to be a need to address “siren policy” in Minnesota, to get uniform meaning to sirens.
I can tell you that for all the talk we do about NOAA, smart phones etc, sirens still generate a huge amount of comments and "talk" from our listeners. We are conditioned in Minnesota to respond to sirens. We just need to know what they mean.
Sirens may be just one part of our severe weather safety net, but they are an important part.
One of the things we learned from Joplin is that the way we "communicate" severe weather information is just as important as getting "lead time" on warnings. People ignored sirens in Joplin because of "siren fatigue"...they were perceived as sounding too frequently, and people were unsure of the "meaning" and did not take action even as sirens sounded minutes before the tornado hit.
I continue to support and urge a move to a totally uniform "siren policy" in Minnesota, and an effective program to communicate and educate Minnesotans about what sirens mean.
Thanks for your contribution!
I think a there should be a uniform policy of sounding weather sirens for tornadoes, 70+ mph winds and tests only for the entire state of MN. People shoudn't have to wonder why the sirens are going off, especially when they are out of town. Come on, it's 2012, people travel. Maybe the legislature could get on the stick and pass this next session.
This discussion is very interesting. I always assumed that an outdoor warning siren meant "there is a hazard, seek more information". I still think this is the best "policy" regarding outdoor warning sirens. Trying to assign much more "meaning" than that is problematic, especially considering the public is still confused by the difference between watch and warning.
Dakota County is divided into four siren zones, as shown in this document: http://mn-dcc.org/images/pdf/References/Weather%20Siren%20Activation.pdf. If a warning is issued for any part of a zone, all the sirens in that zone are activated. For example, a severe storm passing through Inver Grove Heights would cause the sirens in Lakeville to be turned on.
With GIS technology and the polygonal warnings the NWS issues, I don't see how there's much of a reason for any county to blow its sirens en masse or by zone instead of for just the warned area. Perhaps a county could incorporate the WEA features to activate (or recommend for activation) only the sirens which need to be activated.