Technology pays off in saved lives

Monday, July 11, 2005

If you want to save lives when it comes to tornadoes, it pays to spend millions of dollars on new radar and warning systems.

Oh, and a lot of good luck doesn't hurt, either.

For the first time since records began to be kept in 1950, no one was killed by a tornado in April, May or June, according to officials.

According to a study published last month in the journal Weather and Forecasting, new radars installed by the National Weather Service in the 1990s are saving nearly 80 lives a year that would otherwise be lost to tornadoes.

The new equipment allows forecasters to issue warnings for 60 percent of tornadoes, up from 35 percent before the instruments were installed, according to a story by The Associated Press. At the same time, that allowed the average lead time for warnings to rise from 5.3 minutes to 9.5 minutes.

Four minutes may not seem like much -- but it's usually plenty of time to gather yourself and your children and get to a tornado shelter.

But all the credit can't go to technology.

It was an unusual tornado season in that no major storms formed over cities in Tornado Alley, which starts in central and northern Texas and stretches north into Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.

Joe Schaefer, director of NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., April was about average with 137 tornadoes, but they were primarily in southern areas. May was way below average with 134 tornadoes, and while 299 twisters occurred in June, they were mainly in northern regions like Wisconsin and Minnesota.

"The important thing, nobody was killed," he said.

The previous low mark for April-June was one in 1992. There were 17 in that period last year and 43 in 2003.

Now is not the time for Americans to relax, however. Hurricane Cindy spawned tornadoes that destroyed a race track in Atlanta, for example, and more are possible as Dennis makes its way inland. And, the hurricane season is young, with storms expected to last as long as into October.

So, keep your commercial and weather radios turned on; check the forecast on TV and in the paper, and if you have Internet access, a link on the upper left side of the Gazette Web site, http://mccookgazette.com, offers weather warnings, animated radar images and tons of other weather information from the National Weather Service.

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