It’s been less than six years since an EF-3 tornado plowed through the city of Nappanee in October 2007. In terms of the technology and ability to communicate when severe weather is near, it seems a lifetime ago.
Michael Lewis has been the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s station in North Webster since June 2007, he said
The rise in popularity of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social media has made getting out information much easier.
“We’re light years ahead of where we were in 2007,” Lewis said.
Norman, Okla. isn’t the cradle of civilization but for someone like Lewis it is. That’s where the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center lives. It predicts weather up to eight days out and a new report comes every six hours. Lewis and the other staff in North Webster take that information and condense it for this area.
The North Webster office tracks weather for 37 counties: Five in Michigan, eight in Ohio and the rest in Indiana. Information then goes on the website at www.crh.noaa.gov
For those without Internet access, Lewis said a NOAA weather radio can be vital in getting people the information they need when severe weather is near.
Many department and hardware stores sell them and Lewis said they can be programmed to just alert the owner when there is severe weather in a specific area.
Spotters and sirens
There is a strong focus is on technology when it comes to tracking severe weather, then getting it out to the public.
Jennifer Tobey, emergency management director for Elkhart County, believes in tornado sirens. She also acknowledges that they aren’t 100 percent effective since people hear them in non-emergency situations.
“But lives were saved in Nappanee,” Tobey said, “because the (former) police chief, Mike Anglin, set off the tornado sirens.”
Since then, Nappanee Mayor Larry Thompson said the city has added three more sirens to its outdoor warning system and expanded into the countryside to be able to warn more of the surrounding Amish population.
“After the tornado,” Thompson said, “we thought it was the logical thing to do to push that system out farther.”
Thompson had been mayor of Nappanee for 13 years when the tornado struck in 2007. He said that night was the first time the emergency sirens had been sounded other than a test.
Even with expanded siren capability, when it comes to warning people about possible severe weather, boots on the ground are still important. The North Webster office utilizes 3,400 weather spotters throughout its 37-county area. Why?
“There are always limitations to our radar,” said Lewis.
The most important being that the radar cannot track what’s going on at ground level. Lewis said his office could always use more weather spotters. Those interested are asked to visit weather.gov/iwx where people can take online courses to get trained. There are also weather spotting classes every February and March.
Turn on the tube
For many people the most effective way to find out when severe weather is approaching is still by watching the local television weather man.
Mike Hoffman, WNDU-TV’s chief meteorologist, remembers the Nappanee tornado vividly. That night we was tracking two other storms that he was sure would result in tornadoes.
Then the big one struck.
Hoffman took to the air, cutting into regularly scheduled programing, to give updates and keep people calm.
“You want to get on the air and let people know what’s going on,” said Hoffman. “But you also don’t want to scare them.”
When severe weather is looming, Hoffman and the crew at WNDU discuss when the right time to go on air is. Improved technology makes that decision easier, he said. Like weather spotters, Hoffman relies on viewers posting photos to Facebook or Twitter.
“Radar only tells us so much,” Hoffman said. “It amazes me how much good information we get from our viewers.”
So while Hoffman is on the air during severe weather circumstances, he’ll typically have another meteorologist off screen reading reports and going through viewer submissions.
Preparedness is still key in tracking warning signs and getting that information out to the public.
That’s why constant training takes place. That includes what is being called “Engaging Congregations in a Community Disaster or Crisis.”
The goal of that program is to engage local church leaders on what they and their congregations can do to be ready when a disaster strikes.
It’s scheduled for May 23 at Oaklawn, 330 Lakeview Drive, Goshen.
Starting at 8 a.m. Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers and St. Joseph County Sheriff Mike Grzegorek will speak. At 8:30 a.m., video clips of local disasters will be shown. Then Tobey will speak along with Bill Zimmerman who holds the same position with St. Joseph County.
Tobey said she will go over all hazards planning and tell the congregations what they can do to help.
“It’s a combination of a little bit of everything,” said Tobey. “Churches always want to help. They just don’t know who to talk to or what to do.”
After a break, there will be a panel discussion. Those attending are asked to register by Friday.
For more information, call 574-537-2680 or visit oaklawn.org to register online.
In Nappanee, the city has several tornado shelters, some at local churches. Thompson said there are regular “run throughs” at each of those shelters. He also indicated how important churches and other faith-based organizations were to helping the community recover from the 2007 tornado, which did millions of dollars of property damage, but caused no serious injuries.
Thompson said that much was learned from Nappanee’s tornado in 2007, and he believes the community is safer today as a result. He also believes that digging out from that night will be his greatest accomplishment in office.
“When all is said and done, I’ll have (been mayor) for 20 years,” Thompson said. “No matter what I do, or what I accomplish, I’ll always be the guy who was here when the tornado hit.”
Managing Editor Michael Wanbaugh contributed to this report.