Some were warned; some were not.
It's important to determine how the system performed.
As we begin to regain our balance from the shock of Sunday's deadly tornado, it may be time to ask how well or how poorly our warning system worked. Obviously, no warning system can do anything about saving homes and buildings. A warning system is intended to save lives and prevent injuries. But given the toll in deaths and injuries Sunday, we must ask whether the system could have worked better. Here's what we know:
According to news reports from Jimmy Nesbitt and other Evansville Courier & Press staff writers, television viewers were alerted Saturday night to the possibility of storms moving into the area early Sunday. Given that tornado season had passed, there seemed no reason to be particularly alarmed by that. Many of us went to bed.
But those still up and tuned in to WEHT-News25 Chief Meteorologist Wayne Hart learned at 1:40 a.m. that he thought there was a chance that a tornado that had formed in Henderson County, Ky., might hit the South Side of Evansville. He advised viewers to alert others who might be sleeping. At that point, the National Weather Service had issued a warning only for Henderson County in Kentucky and Posey County in Indiana.
At 1:49 a.m., the National Weather Service at Paducah, Ky., issued its tornado warning for Vanderburgh County. That's when the tornado sirens began to blow. Within 10 minutes, but nearly 20 minutes after Hart's warning, the F-3 tornado ripped through Eastbrook Mobile Home Park. As we have heard from survivors, some people got the word, but many didn't. Before it was finished, the twister would leave in its path at least 23 dead and at least 200 injured.
There's a list of reasons people might not have gotten or paid attention to warnings : They were sound asleep; it was the wrong season; they were complacent about the sirens, which sound for many storms; they were out of earshot of the sirens; or the roar of the storm drowned out the sirens.
Perhaps, as some readers have suggested, the sirens need two warning sounds - one for all threatening storms and another specifically for when tornadoes are a real possibility.
We noticed as well from a graphic published in the Courier & Press on Wednesday that the mobile home park is outside a one-mile radius of any of the emergency sirens, although it was also reported that the sirens can be heard within a two- to three-mile radius, depending on conditions. It's not clear whether even under the best of conditions the sirens' sound would have reached the park.
Also, weather forecasters say the sirens are intended to alert people outside to go inside, rather than wake people asleep inside.
The timing of weather warnings is a key concern. If Hart figured out the danger 20 minutes before, then might weather service personnel on the ground nearer to Evansville have done the same?
This is an old issue in Evansville, which once had a manned weather station. In a reorganization, that responsibility was shifted to Paducah. However, after several years of lobbying, Evansville secured Doppler radar for the region, located at Owensville, Ind. National Weather Service personnel at Paducah said radar equipment worked great Sunday. If that's so, then what part of the system didn't?
Hart said, "(The NWS) could have thrown Evansville into that first warning. They may have thought that (the tornado) was going to stay south of the river."
Hart said, as well, that it is important for homes to have weather radios. He compares them to smoke alarms. But even some weather radios did not work Sunday morning. Digital weather radios did work in issuing a warning, according to Nesbitt's report, but those that receive a 1,050-hertz tone stayed silent. The weather service is investigating the cause.
It is fair, and essential to this discussion, to point out that the speed with which the tornado formed before it tore into the trailer park and Newburgh may have rendered some warnings ineffective. It is a point that will have to be weighed by experts in assessing how the system worked. As for those of us who survived, it is a near certainty that we will assess our own attitudes and preparedness. We will pay closer attention to the warnings. We may purchase a weather radio. For a while, at least, we will make sure we have fresh batteries. And we will pay close attention to what experts tell us about how our warning system worked Sunday morning.