The Ottumwa Courier

May 22, 2013

Tornado creates local questions

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — If there's a tornado in Wapello County, where would I go afterwards? It isn't hard to understand why local callers are asking Wapello County Emergency Management that question.

Josh Stevens, emergency coordinator for the county, said since the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornado has been shown, "I've gotten inquiries. Obviously we can't stop a tornado from hitting a town, but there are things we can all do to minimize the damage."

He explained that when and other emergency response planners talk about reducing the amount of damage, they're talking about lives, not property.

"Our best defense ... is a weather radio. If we learn there's a storm in Centerville with a history of producing tornadoes, and that it's moving northeast, that information is a good identifier," he said.

Before the arrival of severe weather, checking the National Weather Service radar can be helpful, too, he said. The NWS is a lot more accurate than in the past, he said, as they hand down real-time information that they are constantly updating. They've also tightened up the area they declare a warning for, Stevens said, to avoid the "cry wolf" syndrome, where residents hear about a danger so often that, since the danger never materializes, they start to ignore the warnings.

"They [avoid] saying that there's a severe thunderstorm warning for Wapello County. You'd have 60 mph winds in Eldon, and people out in Eddyville mowing their lawns. They'll call a warning for the Eldon area," he said.

Most of the questions Stevens has received have been about where to go after a tornado: where the nearest shelters are to the caller's home. The answer: Shelters are always changing.

"We partner with the Red Cross," said Stevens. "They have the vetted list."

That means the potential shelters have been researched to meet requirements, including being usable by people who have disabilities. So there are good shelters available. But the shelters that are usable can change, so issuing a "list" to the public just doesn't make sense, Stevens said.

"It's [also] highly situational," he added.

A possible shelter right near one's home may not be activated because debris on the streets makes it hard to reach. Another shelter across town may be the more accessible one. Or a school used in a different emergency may have been fine that time, but wrong next time. Another building may have no power or water.

"We recommend the public tunes in to local media," Stevens said.

Don't worry if the power is out. Stevens said planners have come up with multiple ways to get the word out. Media will be updated, including radio, TV and newspapers. So, too, will social media, like the city of Ottumwa website. And media outlets have their own websites. If your power is out, get some shelter updates on your car radio, Stevens suggested. Many cell phones have access to the Internet, so that's another way to get information. Even with power out, most cell phones can easily be charged during a drive.

There are other ideas, too. Emergency personal out in a disaster may know where a shelter is, and if they don't, Stevens said, they'll typically have a two-way radio. With his connection to state resources, he can bring in equipment like the portable information station. That's a self-powered radio station, with a sign telling motorists what station to tune to. On that station, it plays a recorded message. And Stevens has thought about contacting area businesses, to see if they'd consider allowing emergency crews to communicate with the public via the tall electric signs in front of some of them.

But the last piece of equipment for getting information is actually the first piece of safety gear Stevens recommended, the weather radio, which has a battery backup. Emergency management personal can record a message with information updates, and the National Weather Service will play the message across area weather radios.

To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark.