Heed tornado warnings

In case the scenes from Greensburg in 2007 and Joplin in 2011 have begun to fade in the memories of south-central Kansans, this week has offered quite a refresher on the respect due tornado warnings.

Knowing that twisters can have the power to toss around tractor-trailers is one thing.

Seeing the footage of the Flying J Truck Plaza in Dallas on Tuesday was something else – confirmation that tornadoes are nothing to mess around with, and encouragement to take shelter when the sirens blow.

Dallas can be grateful that the weather experts were able to prepare the area and that people heard and heeded the warnings. In our part of Tornado Alley, the Dallas storm system also highlighted reasons for gratitude.

One is Sedgwick County’s new outdoor siren system, which will be able to target parts of the county rather than always blare countywide. Locals traditionally discount sirens, thinking it’s safe to assume that any funnel sighting was in the opposite corner of the populous county. When the new $1.25 million system starts operating in about three weeks, anyone who hears one of the 147 warning devices should take the threat as nearby and deadly serious – and take cover.

We also can be thankful for the 60 storm shelters – their $45 million cost partially covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency – that were included in the Wichita school district’s 2008 bond issue plan. Some won’t be built and ready until the fall semester, but the multipurpose rooms will be reinforced with 10 to 12 inches of concrete and able to withstand an EF5 tornado. That should fortify parents’ peace of mind.

The Sunday Eagle brought more reassurance about the area’s state of readiness: Twenty-one years after a tornado killed 13 people in an Andover mobile-home park, that community now has new public storm shelters in the recently completed library and city hall, as well as a growing number of residential basements. Clearwater is among the area communities with storm shelters; its stand-alone building was built two years ago with the help of a FEMA grant.

At some point Wichita and Sedgwick County also should discuss whether public safety now necessitates public shelters. Because advances in weather forecasting are giving people more warning of many storms, should the communities be providing them safe places to wait them out? “If you have 15 minutes of lead time, which you often have now with F4 and F5 tornadoes, that makes shelters an option,” Mike Smith, the senior vice president and chief innovation executive for Wichita-based AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, told The Eagle.

With 550 tornado deaths in the United States last year, including 161 people last May in Joplin, we can’t say we haven’t been warned. More tornadoes are sure to come our way at some point. Our challenge as south-central Kansans is to be not only savvy about them but also ready and safe.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman