Storm Ready: Is the Twin Cities prepared for a major tornado?

8:42 PM, May 14, 2012   |    comments
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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - The images of tornadoes twisting and turning, leaving devastation in their wake can be jaw-dropping.

From semi-trailers tossed like toys in Dallas, Texas, earlier this year, to total destruction in Joplin, Missouri, last year.

That is why KARE 11 teamed up with Minnesota Public Radio News to find out if the Twin Cities is storm ready. 

KARE 11 Chief Meteorologist Belinda Jensen and MPR's Paul Huttner put together a simulation of a major tornado hitting Minneapolis.

"The reality is if you put a large tornado over a populated area, people are going to get hurt," said Ken Blumenfeld, University of Minnesota geography professor and tornado researcher.

Blumenfeld is one of the few people in the country studying tornadoes that strike metropolitan areas.

Last year's tornado in North Minneapolis was deadly and destructive, but relatively weak compared to a large tornado.

The last time researchers saw a storm like that was May 6, 1965 when twisters swept across the metro. Thirteen people died, hundreds were left injured.

Blumenfeld says research shows storms like that happen every 40 to 50 years.

"We really haven't had one like that in over 50 years almost. It means it's probably going to happen sooner rather than later," he said.

In our scenario, the National Weather Service in Chanhassen issues a "moderate risk" for severe storms centered on the Twin Cities at 7 a.m. with a chance of significant tornadoes later in the day.

"Hopefully people are starting to think about the potential for storms later on in the day," said Todd Krause, the warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service.

Later in the day at 2 p.m. a tornado watch is issued.

The ingredients for a major tornado reaching speeds of around 200 miles per hour are developing. And at 6:25 p.m. a funnel cloud is spotted over Shakopee.

In our simulation, the sirens in Hennepin County would be going off and the warnings would be intensifying, along with the storm. Twin Cities' broadcasters would be on the air informing the public of the danger.

Our simulated tornado is beginning to take shape when spotters report a touchdown at Valley Fair. The twister is getting stronger as it moves.

At 6:35 p.m. wind speeds would be around 90-miles per hour as it nears the Eden Prairie Center.

Five minutes later the twister approaches Edina High School at 6:40 in the evening. It reaches the strongest speeds over Lake Calhoun and Uptown at 6:50 as it becomes an EF-4, the second strongest tornado on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

In our scenario, the twister begins to weaken when it approaches Target Field 20 minutes later at 7 o'clock. The Twins were scheduled to play at 7:10.

"It is one thing for us to put out a tornado warning, it's a whole other ball game to make sure people are actually hearing that warning," said Krause.

In fact, according to a study by the U-S Department of Commerce, after the Joplin tornado, it took several warnings before people even took cover.

"What was most surprising to me is people on average needed between two and nine sources of information before they actually took a physical act to protect themselves," said Eric Waage, Director of the Hennepin County Emergency Management.

Multiple warnings are what it took Monty Johnson and his family in Wadena to get into their basement two years ago.

"We were lulled into that feeling that it would happen in other places," said Johnson.

The tornado wiped out much of the town, including severely damaging his home. He and his wife could not see the tornado because it was laced with rain and clouds.

Only when he got a phone call from a co-worker who actually saw the twister did they believe the warnings.

"We headed downstairs about the time we hit the last step you could just hear just immense amount of destruction," said Johnson.

Social scientists say it is hard for our brains to process information that doesn't happen to us.

John Tauer teaches psychology at the University of St. Thomas. He says most people who have never experienced a tornado never think it's going to happen to them.

"The old adage, it's better safe than sorry is true in this case, but after you're safe hundreds of times it's easy to think we don't have to do much," said Tauer.

The false alarms do not help either. Statistics show about 70-percent of National Weather Service tornado warnings do not turn out to be tornadoes.

"We need to make sure that those warnings are issued only when tornadoes really do threaten. And that's incumbent on us to learn more about how and why tornadoes form," said Krause.

But the ability to warn people earlier has improved dramatically over the years. On average, 12 to 18 minutes is how much time the weather service gives people to react.

And then there are those outdoor warning sirens. Officials usually test those sirens for severe weather once a month, but some cities even sound sirens for fire calls or to signify it is lunch time. There is no law stopping them from doing so.

"What we want to avoid is that desensitization. You don't want to sound alarms if there's not a risk," said Tauer.

Bill Hughes, an emergency management coordinator with Ramsey County recommends owning a weather radio since sirens aren't meant to be heard indoors.

And while he believes sirens are useful, he says they can be confusing.

"We're a little bit too dependent on them. We need to start looking at better ways of getting the information," said Hughes.

Confusion was not the problem when a tornado hit Monty Johnson's home, ignoring the warnings were.

"I ate crow that day in a really hard way," he said. "I respect warnings a lot more."

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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