ELKHART COUNTY – Don’t be alarmed if you hear tornado sirens on Tuesday, March 20. All Indiana broadcast stations will be performing statewide tornado drills at 10:15 a.m. as part of Severe Weather Preparedness Week.
“As the season progresses here, we're preparing for this uptick as we get into the warmer seasons. We’ll see a gradual trend toward increasing threats,” National Weather Service Meteorologist Michael Lewis said. “As those storms become more intense and as conditions develop we can see things like severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, and the flash flooding from those torrential rains that we can get from these thunderstorms.”
As this potential for severe weather increases, emergency personnel want to make the community aware of the proper protocol to take to stay safe. Jennifer Tobey of Elkhart County Emergency Management finds that one of the most important things for people to understand is the workings of the tornado sirens.
“I’m not opposed to outdoor sirens, I just don’t want people to focus 100 percent on those,” she said. “We like residents to be aware that those are outdoor sirens, so those are meant to notify those that are outside that severe weather is a potential. Depending on the wind, the direction of the wind, it can cause a little bit of silencing of those sirens and if you don’t hear it, you don’t hear it. Our office is more supportive of weather radios. We feel that more people will receive that warning inside the home.”
Weather radios can be purchased for $25-$35, Tobey said, and Elkhart County Emergency Management can program them for free if users are unable to do so themselves. Weather radios generally come with the capability for back up systems, should the power go out.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also provided Elkhart County Emergency Management with a number of radios to give to free to mass gathering locations such as churches, schools or apartment complexes. There is also a waiting list to sign up for one if they run out.
“It’s kind of your silent partner in all of this,” Lewis said. “When we issue a warning, those warnings will trigger the radio if they are in an affected area. We use this kind of as our tool to notify you when you’re maybe distracted by something else or even asleep. These are designed to give you notification so you can take appropriate action. It’s really good warning messaging system.”
Tobey recommends keeping the radio turned down, but able to be heard during emergencies such as tornado warnings and flash flood warnings, but also in case of thunderstorm warnings or watches.
“People need to realize that a warning for a severe thunderstorm can be as dangerous if not more dangerous than a tornado,” Tobey said. “I would challenge the citizens to educate themselves about thunderstorms, with high winds, lighting, torrential rain, makes it dangerous in kind of the same way.”
“We focus on severe weather but this whole preparedness week there’s a lot of other things to be thinking about,” Lewis added. “Every thunderstorm has lightning and we really need folks to be thinking about the potential for lightening to be a killer. Even though the storms may not become severe by our definition, lightning is still a threat in any thunderstorm. If you can hear thunder, it means you’re close enough to be struck by lightning. It really is your warning sign that there's potential to have a lightning strike. The best thing to do is a seek shelter inside a home or building and if you can't get into a home or building, getting into a solid vehicle with doors and metal roof that you can at least have some protection from the lightning.”
Tobey also recommends keeping a 72-hour kit, or go bag, for any possible emergencies. These containers generally include food, water, clothing, toiletries, medication and anything else a family would need for 72 hours, in case of emergency, until help can arrive.
“When you’re weather radio goes off, turn on your radio and listen to updates for that. You should already have your go kit that you can grab and be prepared for whatever that warning is.” Tobey said.
Lewis added that although thunderstorms and tornadic activity may increase during the spring and summer months, one thing Elkhart County residents should be especially aware of right now is the increased potential for flooding.
“The bigger concern we have right now is we have a lot of rain so our ground is still very saturated and the soil can't absorb enough run off. Until we start getting crops growing or a long period of time with no rainfall, the threat is still very high for flooding,” Lewis said. “Until we can get that ground drier we’re still running a risk for any rainfall that occurs to pond very quickly or flash flood in the area,” he said.