Public Safety

Being prepared for severe weather in Iowa more than listening for sirens

For Iowa's Severe Weather Week, officials say preparation takes a 'layered' approach

A screen shows the new quadrant siren capability at Linn County Emergency Management Agency in Cedar Rapids on Monday, March 25, 2019. Outdoor warning sirens will now be able to be targeted to the quadrant of Linn County that is affected by tornado warnings. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A screen shows the new quadrant siren capability at Linn County Emergency Management Agency in Cedar Rapids on Monday, March 25, 2019. Outdoor warning sirens will now be able to be targeted to the quadrant of Linn County that is affected by tornado warnings. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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In the past decade or so, Linn County has seen approximately four severe weather-related deaths, according to Tom Ulrich, Linn County Emergency Management Agency operations and readiness coordinator.

Two of those deaths involved lightning strikes, he said, one involved swift-moving water and the fourth was the result of high winds.

According to data from the National Weather Service, there were 508 severe weather-related deaths in the United States in 2017 — the most recent year for which figures were available — and an additional 1,205 people were injured in severe weather events.

In Iowa, weather service data show one person died in 2017 and nine were injured as the result of severe weather, and in 2016 there were two deaths and 14 injuries. In 2015, Iowa saw four severe weather-related deaths and another seven people were injured.

“In many cases, severe-weather deaths can be prevented,” Ulrich said. “And that doesn’t mean that someone who takes precautions can’t find themselves in trouble. But in many cases these deaths could be prevented by paying attention to the warnings issued by the National Weather Service and local officials and taking shelter when the emergency sirens go off.”

That’s why Gov. Kim Reynolds, the National Weather Service, and Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management have designated this week — March 25 to 29 — as Severe Weather Awareness Week, which aims to encourage the public to prepare and practice for severe weather by staying informed and making sure necessary supplies and a plan are in place.

Severe Weather Awareness Week is marked each year by a statewide tornado drill, which will happen Wednesday morning — a test tornado watch will be issued around 10 a.m. followed by a test tornado warning at about 10:15 a.m. During that drill, emergency alerts will be tested on TV and radio, and several counties are expected to sound their emergency sirens, but Linn County will not.

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“We try to encourage preparedness throughout the whole year,” Ulrich said, adding the county chose not to test its siren this week because the monthly siren test is slated to take place next week. The county tests the sirens at 8:45 a.m. the first Wednesday of each month.

In Johnson County, the emergency sirens will sound Wednesday for the statewide tornado drill. The county usually tests the sirens at 10 a.m. the first Wednesday of each month, and that regular test will resume in May, according to a news release from the county.

“We do encourage everyone to participate in the annual tornado drill and use it as an opportunity to prepare for the coming season,” Ulrich said. “But for us the awareness week is more an opportunity to get information out to the public about severe weather preparedness and safety.”

According to Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management, every preparedness kit should include enough water and food to last each person three to five days, a first aid kit, a weather radio, personal hygiene items, a flashlight, extra batteries and at least a week’s worth of medications.

The agency also recommends that additional kits are made for pets and vehicles.

For Ulrich, the key to preparedness is taking a “layered” approach. That means having a weather radio at home and having at least one weather tracking app on mobile devices. The idea, he said, is to not rely 100 percent on the sirens to tell you when dangerous weather is headed your way.

“The sirens were not designed for that,” he said. “They weren’t designed to be heard in your house or in the office, and they weren’t designed to wake you up at night. The sirens were designed to add another layer of protection, and to specifically reach and warn people who may be outdoors or engaged in recreational activities when severe weather hits.”

Linn County is home to what Ulrich called “one of the best outdoor warning systems in the Midwest,” with roughly 110 emergency sirens and an operating system equipped with multiple redundancies that was recently upgraded with the “most modern” technology available.

Most recently, the system was upgraded to divide Linn County into quadrants — with County Home Road dividing north from south and Highway 13 dividing east from west — giving those at the helm the ability to set off sirens in specific quadrants instead of the entire county.

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Linn County Emergency Management Agency Coordinator Steve O’Konek said under the countywide system, sirens would go off in every community regardless of where the weather was hitting, which meant disruptions to schools, businesses, hospitals and other care facilities. Now, under the quadrant system, the agency can target the affected area.

“This gives us a more targeted approach,” he said. “Now, when the sirens go off in a particular quadrant, the people in that area know something is coming and that they need to get to safety.”

Spring typically marks the beginning of severe weather season in Iowa, according to the National Weather Service, and with it comes the risk of flooding, heavy rains, high winds and tornadoes.

“The best thing people can do is make sure they have a plan in place and adequate supplies now, before a big storm hits,” Ulrich said. “That way, when the siren goes off, they don’t have to think about what to do, they just have to act.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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