Plans in place to warn public when severe weather strikes

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Although Marion County residents are in the midst of drought conditions this winter, spring is right around the corner-and with it the threat of severe weather.

Kansas will observe Severe Weather Awareness Week March 13-17.

Michele Abbott-Becker, director of Marion County Communications and Emergency Management/Homeland Security, said a statewide tornado drill is planned for 1:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 14.

“If the weather is overcast or inclement on that day, it will be delayed so as not to confuse people into thinking there really is severe weather,” Abbott-Becker said. “At that point, you’re asked to practice whatever you’ve been taught at your business, school or home for your personal safety.”

The annual drill is sponsored by the National Weather Service, American Red Cross and the Kansas Emergency Management Agency.

“The National Weather Service will send up the information and we would disseminate it just like we normally would,” Abbott-Becker said. “We’ll set off everybody’s tones and some of the cities will sound their sirens.”

Ready to warn

In 2005, 135 tornadoes occurred in Kansas, eclipsing the record of 116 set in 1991. The 2005 total is 80 above normal.

Even so, no Kansans lost their lives and only six people were injured-thanks in large part to the state’s excellent preparedness organization.

Keeping abreast of weather developments in Marion County, Abbott-Becker passes on pertinent information to various agencies.

“If we have any activity, I come down and do a situation report,” she said. “Not only do I turn that into the Office of Emergency Management, but I turn it into the National Weather Service in Wichita as well.”

Procedures in place

While severe weather in Kansas is inevitable, Abbott-Becker said injuries caused by those storms usually can be prevented by following procedures.

“What always happens first is that we normally go into a severe-weather outlook,” she said. “That just puts us on alert that there’s a possibility of severe weather. It doesn’t mean we’re in a watch or a warning.”

A tornado “watch” means conditions are more favorable than normal for a severe-weather occurrence; a tornado “warning” means a severe-weather condition either is imminent or has been reported.

Once notified, Abbot-Becker said the Marion County dispatcher then notifies the entire jurisdiction.

“We also have what we call a conference call with the National Weather Service,” she said. “If they have a warned area and they see something severe coming in, they’ll send me a page on my pager or phone and set up the conference call.”

All emergency managers will then dial in and receive notification of what’s expected from the storm.

“This just gives us a heads-up as to what to expect,” Abbott-Becker said. “It helps us a lot because during the summer we have the whole population out at the reservoir that we have to determine what to do with.”

Weather-watch volunteers

Abbott-Becker said the City of Hillsboro is the only entity that has an organized weather-watch program, but the entire county is covered, thanks to volunteers through the Emergency Medical Services department and all fire and EMS volunteers.

“The majority of your volunteer fire departments take on the hat of weather watch, so it’s like an umbrella under your fire department,” she said. “If I go on the radio and set off tones that notify we’re in a watch, everyone who carries a pager or radio will be notified.”

Once notification has been issued, Abbott-Becker said storm spotters and law enforcement agencies activate their predetermined policies.

“If the spotters see severe weather, they’ll radio it back to us and we contact Wichita and confirm what our spotters say is happening and determine the severity,” she said.

Thanks to a Homeland Security initiative, the sheriff’s offices, jail, 911 center and courthouse are now equipped with a generator to ensure a continuous flow of electricity in case of severe weather.

“This will power both buildings so we’re still answering the radio and will be able to dispatch 911 calls,” Abbott-Becker said. “It’s incumbent of us to be able to maintain that service.”

Have a household plan in place

Having a plan in place for severe weather could literally be the difference between life and death, Abbott-Becker said.

“I recommend every family have an emergency plan-that can apply to everything from weather to fire to carbon monoxide,” she said. “We recommend you take your identified shelter when severe weather approaches.

“Don’t wait to call 911 when a storm is approaching and ask where the nearest shelter is,” she added. “You need to know ahead of time and talk about it with your family and children.”

The worst thing citizens can do is chase storms or stand on their front porches to watch their progress.

“You’re putting yourself in harm’s way if you do that,” she said. “We’ve already identified you’re in a warned area and need to seek shelter.”

Abbott-Becker said contingency plans have been developed for large events such as the Hillsboro Arts & Crafts Fair or Chingawassa Days in Marion.

“Weather isn’t specific to the summer anymore, so we need to know what to do with extra populations in case of a weather event,” she said.

Information sources

Another great source of information in severe-weather situations is the public itself, Abbott-Becker said.

“The public shouldn’t be afraid to call us if they see a tornado,” she said. “Continued reporting and updating keeps people informed down the line.

“We encourage people to call the 382-2144 number, but if 911 is all you remember, we won’t hang up on you,” she said.

A direct link to the National Weather Service is only an arm’s length away for dispatch.

“We are fortunate to have a (National Warning System) phone, so all we have to do is push a button and we have verbal communications with the National Weather Service,” she said. “There’s only about one of these per three counties. We have one here, so we’re fortunate.”

Another excellent informational tool during severe weather is a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio, Abbott-Becker said.

“Marion County is served by two NOAA antennas-one from Harvey County and one outside Abilene-so you have coverage for your weather alert radio,” she said.

“It’s the best $38 you’ll ever spend-especially if you’re a rural resident-because you can be asleep, and if you’re in a warned area, the alarm will sound and start giving you information.”

NOAA weather radios are equipped with a nine-volt battery backup in case electrical service is interrupted, she added.

No guarantees

While there are no guarantees everyone will be safe during every weather event, Abbott-Becker said Marion County has a network of trained professionals who provide some of the best safeguards available.

“You do have people working on your behalf,” she said. “Whether it’s tornadoes or floods, we take an all-hazards approach.

“We feel if we’re prepared for one, we’re prepared for them all,” she said. “It’s all up to the education of the public.


Storm Spotters to Meet March 29

The Marion City Auditorium will be the site of a storm-spotters meeting sponsored by the National Weather Service at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 29.

“This will be a county-wide event and everyone is welcome,” said Michele Abbott-Becker, director of Marion County Communications and Emergency Management/Homeland Security.

“The Red Cross will be at this meeting and they’ll have handouts that show guidelines for your personal safety kit and what you need to have on hand.”

Abbott-Becker encourages school-bus drivers in Marion County to attend.

“Every one of those have radios, so if they see something that doesn’t look right, that’s one more tool for me,” she said.

“To me, people out in the field are very important. So the more people who have radios or communications and are trained, the better.”


Getting the word to people places

Once Marion County Communications alerts city departments around the county of impending weather problems, those departments, by protocol, contact specified locations that may be heavily populated. The following list is not exhaustive and is updated on an ongoing basis.

Florence: Oasis School.

Goessel: Bethesda Home; Goessel High and Grade schools.

Hillsboro: Hillsboro Community Medical Center and Long-term Care Unit; Parkside Homes; Hillsboro High School; Country Haven Inn; Vogt’s Hometown Market; Municipal Swimming Pool; Tabor College

Lincolnville: Centre High School; sirens set off for Pilsen.

Lost Springs: Centre Grade School.

Marion: Marion Manor, St. Luke Hospital & Living Center, Marion High and Marion Elementary schools; public swimming pool; September Apartments I & II; Hilltop Manor.

Peabody: Peabody-Burns High School; Peabody Grade School; Legacy Park; Westview Manor Nursing Home.

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