Tornado Sirens

The deadliest tornadoes in the U.S. occur at night because it is hard to warn people when they are sleeping. Thank goodness for tornado sirens.

It's nighttime and everyone is asleep. You're awakened by the soft rumble of thunder in the distance, but nonchalantly fall back to sleep. You are awakened again an hour later, this time by louder thunder, some tapping on your window and an odd hissing noise unlike anything you have ever heard. You get out of bed and walk over to your window, but all you see is the black sky. The hissing gets louder and the ground begins to shake subtly. The hissing then turns to a roar.

The tapping on the window was from hail, and the roar is from a nearby tornado. If you don't know what to do by this point or know what you're dealing with, you will probably get hurt and so will everyone else in your home and immediate area.

The deadliest tornadoes in the United States have occurred after dusk and before dawn, when there is little or no light out. The reason for this has nothing to do with bad forecasting techniques. How can you warn people via television or radio when everyone is asleep? The only way to alert people that a funnel cloud has been spotted or that a tornado is headed your way is by sounding a tornado siren. Unfortunately, not many towns have them or think they need them.

A tornado siren is a loud horn that is sounded whenever a funnel cloud or tornado is sighted. National Weather Service (NWS) officials now have the radar technology that allows them to be able to spot an area where tornado activity is likely to occur and even give out a warning before a funnel cloud is spotted. (A funnel cloud is a tornado that has not touched the ground or water. When the cloud touches the ground, it becomes a tornado. When the cloud touches the water, it becomes a waterspout.) However, even though technology has saved the lives of thousands, technology is useless if everyone is asleep and cannot hear the warning over the television or radio.

A tornado WATCH is issued when conditions are favorable for tornado activity. A tornado WARNING is issued when a funnel cloud or tornado has been spotted. Most NWS offices operate 24 hours a day, and they would be the ones to give the go-ahead to sound the siren. In much smaller towns, it might be the fire department or other government office that may be in charge of sounding the siren.

On the U.S. East Coast, all cities and towns south of New England should have tornado sirens. Areas north of New York, for the most part, are too cold for tornado activity. Tornadoes in New England are generally rare.

The states that lie near the Great Lakes in the Ohio Valley are very vulnerable. All their towns should have access to a tornado siren. Illinois sees an average of 48 tornadoes a year, according to NWS data. Indiana and Wisconsin see about 20 a year, Michigan gets about 16, Ohio 14 and Pennsylvania get about nine.

The states in the Midwest, the region that includes Oklahoma and Texas, are struck with the most tornadoes each year. Many towns in those areas have tornado sirens, but a lot of them still don't. This area of the Midwest is also known as "Tornado Alley" because they are hit by more tornadoes than any place on earth.

In general, the only states that really don't have to worry about tornadoes are those in the Southwest, extreme Northeast and the Northwest . . . and Alaska.

Florida is another hot spot for tornadoes that many people may not realize, and yet, not a single town in Florida has a tornado siren. Sounding a tornado siren in the middle of a hurricane may not be feasible, but most tornadoes that occur in Florida are not associated with hurricanes or tropical storms.

Technology, ironically, is probably the main reason many towns that should have tornado sirens do not have them.

To get a tornado siren in your town, you would have to first talk to your local government officials and present the problem. Usually, the case is that your area has not seen a tornado in years and so no one really wants to spend the money to get a siren installed, thinking they won't need to use it. The argument you can present is that you are in a tornado-prone area and these types of storms are unpredictable. If that does not work, it is time to start writing letters to your local state representative or other congressional person from your area.

Many people have died in tornadoes that have occurred at night not only because there was no warning, but also because they had little or no idea of the characteristics of a tornado: what they sound like, what might happen just before a funnel cloud touches the ground, etc. Though not all tornadoes and storms are the same, there are some general characteristics that can alert you to an approaching tornado or funnel cloud. The first and most important thing to do is to stop and LISTEN. Tornadoes are very common in thunderstorms. The thunder might muffle the noise of the tornado, but keep in mind that a tornado produces a steady roar. Thunder only lasts a few seconds at a time and is accompanied by lightning. If you hear the steady rumbling noise, which many people have described as the sound of an oncoming train, and you don't see any lightning, immediately find a safe place in your home and stay there until the thunderstorm passes. If possible, take a radio with you so that you can listen to the weather reports. Also, listen for any hail; it doesn't matter what size the hail is. In most cases, it will hail or rain just before and/or just after a funnel cloud touches down. If hail is coming down, it is very likely you are experiencing a severe thunderstorm, and that alone should make you more alert to the weather conditions in your area. Another thing to listen for is a hissing noise, which many tornado survivors have said they heard just before the tornado hit them. This hissing sound would be from the nearby funnel cloud. When it is dark out, it is virtually pointless to look out the window in search of a funnel cloud or tornado. In many cases, it will be too dark out to spot anything. The most important thing is to listen.

Most tornadoes last only a few minutes, but they pack winds of over 100 miles an hour. Several tornadoes have even been recorded with winds over 200 miles an hour. (The average strong hurricane carries winds of about 120 miles per hour)

Tornado sirens, paired with tornado awareness, would save hundreds of lives in the United States each year. People are not helpless against tornadoes. There is a way to be prepared, and that is by getting a tornado siren installed in your town and knowing what to do in the event a tornado strikes.

© High Speed Ventures 2011