When the winds blew mightily over the past weekend, many area residents were surprised that no storm warning sirens sounded in Palo Alto County. Among those questioning the lack of a warning was the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors, who quizzed county Emergency Management Director Mark Hunefeld on the situation during their weekly meeting on July 20.
The issue arose late Saturday night, July 17, when a line of severe thunderstorms rolled through the area, packing high winds, hail and rain at various locations in the county. At one point, tornado warnings were issued for the storm, after radar plots indicated areas of rotation in the county.
However, the county’s system of warning sirens were not activated for the event, which drew numerous calls to authorities after the fact, and prompted the supervisors to ask the same question – “Why weren’t the sirens sounded?”
“The sirens weren’t sounded because there is no written, black and white procedure for siren activation in severe weather,” Hunefeld explained to the supervisors. “Part of the reason for that is that the National Weather Service has changed their definitions of what is a watch and what is a warning.”
Hunefeld explained that on Saturday night, the operator on duty at the county Communications Center received a message from the National Weather Service at 11:42 p.m. advising of a tornado warning for the county. “In talking with the dispatcher, she told me that her procedure called for her to be told to sound the sirens when a warning is issued.”
“Who can give that kind of order?” asked Board Chair Jerry Hofstad.
“Any competent authority, a peace officer, firefighter or trained spotters,” were some of the authorized persons, according to Hunefeld.
“From now on, if the Communications Center receives a tornado warning from the National Weather Service, or from any competent authority, such as a deputy on patrol or a trained storm spotter, the sirens will be sounded,” Hunefeld stated.
“There seems to be some confusion whether we are covered by the weather bureau from Sioux Falls or Des Moines, because they always talk about east of Highway Four or west of Highway Four,” noted Supervisor Ron Graettinger.
“Palo Alto County is actually the responsibility of the Des Moines Weather Service Office,” Hunefeld noted. “But when I’m looking a radar and watching a storm, I’m looking at Sioux Falls’ radar, Des Moines’ radar and I might even look at the Omaha radar, but where we’re at, we’re on the edges of all their radar sweeps. That’s why I rely a lot on what KICD in Spencer says, and I’ll call Mark Bruggom (the station meteorologist) to find out for sure.”
A question was asked about deploying storm spotters to aid in tracking storms.
“After dark, there really is no protocol to call out spotters,” Hunefeld said. “I have no authority to ask them to go out, but I’m going to be visiting with all of the fire departments in the county to see if we can’t better work this out.”
As it now stands, Curlew has no storm warning siren system, while the communities of Ruthven and West Bend do have sirens, but they are not tied into the county Communications Center for storm activation. They have to be sounded in their respective communities.
Storm sirens are located at Lost Island Lake and in Graettinger, along with Cylinder, Rodman, Mallard, Ayrshire and Emmetsburg, which can be sounded through the Communications Center. However, in times of a power outage, just four sirens have a battery backup power supply- those at Lost Island Lake, Graettinger, and sirens in Emmetsburg at Sewell Park and on North Superior Street.
“We’re going to keep working to refine this,” Hunefeld assured the supervisors. “If we receive a warning from the National Weather Service, whether a tornado is sited or not, we’re going to sound the sirens. But, it will all eventually come down to judgment calls that people are going to have to make.”
According to Hunefeld, education is still of paramount importance in getting the public to understand the dangers and risks involved in severe weather situations.
“Some people say they never hear an all-clear,” Hunefeld said. “There is no all-clear signal. If the power goes out, people need to have a battery-operated radio to listen for announcements.”
As a point of interest, Hunefeld told the supervisors that Palo Alto County has actually been in a tornado warning 13 times since April. “We’ll take action as best we can,” Hunefeld said. “If we get information that says we could sound our sirens, then we should.”