June 12, 2008 -- With more tornadoes than ever menacing the Heartland this year, twister fatalities have already set a record, and as Wednesday's carnage showed, victims usually get mere minutes to reach safety. Often that is not enough time.
But tornado experts point out that those precious minutes are from when a funnel cloud forms and the tornado touches down. Far too often, those who live in Tornado Alley put more faith in the odds that "it won't be me" and ignore the "tornado watches" that are issued as much as three hours ahead of time.
When the siren goes off indicating that a tornado is on a rampage, those who fail to take heed may find themselves face-to-face with a storm with killer 150 mph winds.
When tornadoes tore through Iowa and Kansas Wednesday leaving wreckage and bodies in their wakes, Boy Scouts caught in the storm said they didn't have time to react to the warning, which came only 12 minutes before the storm touched down.
"They saw a rotation in the clouds," recounted Zach Jessen on "Good Morning America," who got caught in the storm with his Boy Scout troop while on a camping trip. "We all grabbed our stuff from one building. We went outside. The alarm went off. We woke up everybody. We got the people to the shelter just in time, just before the tornado hit."
This description of hearing warning sirens and then immediately seeing a tornado is not all that uncommon, according to meteorologists. Warnings are often only issued minutes in advance — about 13 minutes on average — and that warning only comes when tornadoes are spotted on the radar screen.
By the time warnings come, "the tornadoes are already on the ground," said Penn State meteorologist Jay Searles. "It's the nature of the beast. The best we can do is these enhanced statements [that say] people should begin to take shelter. … Just explain if a thunderstorm approaches your area you should be seek cover immediately."
According to NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, both Iowa and Kansas had tornado watches that extended over wide areas for hours on Wednesday before a tornado warning was issued or before a funnel cloud set down.
In Iowa, a tornado warning was issued at 6:23 p.m.; the tornado, which reached speeds of up to 135 mph, touched down at 6:35 p.m. In Chapman, Kan., a warning was issued at 9:45 p.m., with a touch-down time of 10:22 p.m. In Manhattan and Soldier, also in Kansas, residents had about 10 minutes between the warnings and touch downs.
"The role of the National Weather Service is to forecast and warn for severe weather," said Keli Tarp, a Storm Prediction Center spokeswoman.
According to Tarp, NWS sends alerts to media and disseminates warnings online and via NOAA weather radios. Local emergency services run tornado siren systems, not the NWS, she said.
Kathy Irvin, a 60-year-old resident of Germantown, Tenn., says she only heeds watches once they close in around the Memphis suburb where she lives. Memphis, in the western part of Tennessee, is prone to tornadoes in late spring. Earlier this year, a tornado tore through the city, damaging homes and ripping the roof off of a large local mall.
"We don't pay that much attention to them anymore unless they get … close to where we are," Irvin said. "If one is sighted, we have the siren system. Of course, we run for cover."
According to Paul Markowski, a meteorologist at Penn State, anecdotally, people generally pay attention to warnings, but not always the watches that come before.
"Issuing the warning is only part of the battle," he said. "The challenge is disseminating the information so that it gets to the right people. That goes beyond meteorology. … Having a good warning or a timely warning doesn't guarantee that people know they're in danger."
Markowski envisions a future where NOAA weather radio is in every car or message alerts can be sent to every person's cell phone.
Over the past 10 years, forecasters have gotten much better at predicting and warning people about tornadoes, a fact that causes frustration when he shares stories about tornado fatalities.
"All of these advances we make are only as good as our ability to have people take shelter in safe places," he said.
Having a plan before that warning siren goes off, however, is essential, according to Accuweather meteorologist Henry Marguisity.
"When you're in a situation where you're in a tornado risk area, you have to have a game plan ready to go and be ready for what could happen — especially this year," Marguisity said. "We're so far above normal in the reports of tornadoes. People should be especially careful in the Midwest; they should really take this seriously."
This year in the U.S., a record number of tornadoes has already killed more than 100 people. And forecasters don't expect things to get much better, at least not in the coming week.
Accuweather is forecasting severe weather and potential tornadoes in Wisconsin, Illinois and Southern Kansas, with more severe weather on Saturday in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.
"Sometimes people have to take a little more care," Penn State's Searles said. "If people aren't able to look and take a little personally responsibility, it is a little hard to do. Educating yourself can really aid or help prevent disasters from happening as far as loss of life."