Minnesota Severe Weather Awareness Week is April 21-25. The St. Thomas Public Safety Department reminds the St. Thomas community that the annual statewide tornado drill is planned during this important week – on Thursday, April 24. The drill is an opportunity to test spring and summer severe weather safety procedures and a chance for everyone to review what they would do during a severe storm.

The National Weather Service will simulate two tornado warnings on April 24:

  • The first will take place at 1:45 p.m. when all jurisdictions will activate their warning systems, including their outdoor warning sirens, NOAA weather radios, and the Emergency Wireless Alert. This means the outdoor notification sirens will go off at a time other than the first Wednesday of the month. It allows schools, businesses and hospitals to practice their refuge plans.
  • At 6:55 p.m., a second simulated warning in all metro-area counties and many others throughout the state will give families and second-shift workers a similar opportunity.

To assist with preplanning for severe weather, review the tornado watch and warnings information listed below.

Tornado watch

The National Weather Service issues a tornado watch when weather conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes. Continue with normal activities but pay special attention to the latest weather conditions, monitor radio and television weather reports and be prepared to move to a shelter if a tornado occurs.

Tornado warning

The National Weather Service issues a tornado warning when a tornado is reported or is imminent. Individuals should seek shelter immediately when they are in or near the path of the storm. Warnings are issued via radio and television by county and city names. Be sure you know the name of the county where you are located and the names of the surrounding cities.

Thunderstorm winds

Thunderstorms can produce straight-line winds that exceed 100 miles per hour. For this reason, a severe thunderstorm should be treated like a tornado. Individuals should move to an appropriate shelter when they are in the path of the storm. The National Weather Service also will issue a watch or a warning for these weather events.

The strong rush of wind from a thunderstorm is called a downburst. One of the primary causes is rain-cooled air that accelerates downward, producing potentially damaging gusts of wind. Strong downbursts can be mistaken for tornadoes. They are often accompanied by a roaring sound similar to that of a tornado. Downbursts can easily overturn mobile homes, tear roofs off houses and topple trees. People caught outdoors are especially vulnerable to falling trees.

The National Weather service has included Minnesota into the Impact Based Warning System. In addition to providing the general watches and warnings, some of these will include plain language to better communicate the possible impact of the storm. Read more about it here.

Stay tuned to technology for severe weather warnings

Severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings are disseminated swiftly using hotlines and many other means of communication, including radio, television and the Internet. The development of technology has allowed people to receive warnings via cell phones, pagers and other methods. Spotters provide important storm reports and emergency officials carry out the plans that emergency managers have developed. Updates are issued frequently until immediate danger has passed.

In recent years, there are many technologies that have developed to assist in knowing about severe weather and warnings. Some media companies have developed cell phone apps to assist as well. Check with an app provider to see what is available. Also, there are individual weather apps that can assist.

Owners of newer smart phones can take advantage of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) – a free tool developed by Homeland Security, the National Weather Service (NWS) and the cellular telephone companies. Now public sector emergency officials can use WEAs to send warnings directly to cell phones in affected areas. These short messages may look like a text message, but unlike texts, which are sent directly to a phone number, these warnings will be broadcast to all phones within range of designated cell towers through the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). Also, the National Weather Service has websites that can provide up-to-date information. For a more complete listing of these technologies visit Minnesota Department of Safety’s Homeland Security website.

Outdoor sirens are used by many cities and counties to alert citizens to severe weather. The city of St. Paul replaced all of its sirens this past year. The major changeover included removing the sirens from private buildings, putting them on public rights of way, improving their placement for more effectiveness, and instituting new technology that will allow the Ramsey County Emergency Communication Center to set off the sirens in specific parts of the city rather than throughout the whole county.

The city of Minneapolis also is updating its sirens’ software to improve the operation of its system. Many times people comment about not hearing sirens inside of buildings. These sirens are intended only for outdoor notification. The outdoor systems do not offer an all-clear signal; therefore, people need to consult other media for updates.

The best method of receiving weather warnings inside is with an NOAA weather radio. The National Weather Service will activate the tone-alert feature of the radio when there is severe weather. These radios can be purchased at most stores that sell electronic equipment.

Those who plan to purchase an NOAA weather radio should make sure it has a battery backup and an NWR SAME receiver. This allows the users to program and receive weather notices for a specific geographic area; in addition, these radios will notify users of other types of emergencies such as amber alerts and hazardous spills. Click here for more information. There also are smartphone apps that will permit listening to the weather radio.

The National Weather Service has its own website that provides national and local warnings and updates. Be sure to bookmark it for updates and future reference; also, there are many other websites that provide information and radar images to assist individuals in making decisions.

The Public Safety Department encourages UST offices to coordinate monitoring of weather warnings through one of these NOAA Weather Radios and weather Internet sites.

Depending on the situation, Public Safety may supply notification through the UST Emergency Notification System. Public Safety officers also may supplement notices with public address announcements, bullhorn announcements in buildings or personal visits to different offices or areas of campus. (St. Thomas does not have a central public address notification system.)

The National Weather Service alerts media outlets to severe weather information so that it can be passed along. Local television stations are a good source for updated information.

Seeking refuge and “shelter-in-place” at St. Thomas and off campus

When seeking refuge and shelter-in-place, avoid areas with windows, glass and large roof expansions. This includes buildings with large atriums, such as the Schulze Grand Atrium at the UST School of Law, Terrence Murphy Hall atrium, the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex field house, Schoenecker Arena, and the first floor of McCarthy Gym.

When there is a tornado or severe thunderstorm warming, UST community members in the Anderson Student Center are advised to go the basement near Dance or Bowling or to the parking garage area for refuge and shelter-in-place; also, some of the stairwells in the newer buildings on campus have areas designated as refuge areas.

For safety in apartments, residence halls or office buildings, individuals should move to the innermost rooms on the lowest level. In most cases these will be the basements or tunnels of the buildings. In a hallway, crouch down and protect your head from flying debris.

At home, go to the basement, if possible. Get under a table, work bench or other sturdy furniture to avoid falling debris. A stairwell also is a good place to seek shelter during a tornado. If it is not possible to get to a basement, go to a small interior room on the lowest floor. Closets, bathrooms and interior walls afford the best protection in most cases, or try to hide under a bed. Get under something sturdy or cover yourself with blankets. Stay away from windows.

When severe weather is a threat, abandon a mobile home, car, truck or other vehicle as quickly as possible. Seek a sturdy shelter or permanent structure. Remember that many deaths occur when people try to drive away in a vehicle but get caught in deadly winds. Avoid bridges because they act like wind tunnels.

When outside, a person should lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression and cover their head with their hands; again, do not get under an overpass or bridge; individuals are safer in a low, flat location, keeping in mind the potential for flooding in some severe weather conditions. Never try to outrun a tornado in a car or truck when in urban or congested areas; instead, leave the vehicle immediately for safe shelter and find protection from flying debris – the cause of most severe weather-related fatalities and injuries.

As with any potential emergency situation, the Public Safety Department recommends planning ahead for severe weather. Know how to access information about pending severe weather and the closest and safest place to take cover. Do an advance study of the different terminology that is used for watches and warnings so you know what must be done in case of a weather emergency.

For more information, maps and other safety tips on severe weather and tornadoes, check out the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Homeland Security website.

For more information about St. Thomas’ severe weather procedures call Public Safety, (651) 962-5100.