Q&A: Severe Weather Awareness Week, and emergency preparedness

Rainbow and lightning
Lightning flashed across a rainbow after a storm moved through Champlin, Minn. on July 17, 2010.
MPR File Photo/Than Tibbetts

Question and answer with Kris Eide, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, about Severe Weather Awareness Week, which begins Monday.

Rupa Shenoy: In your release, you say this is the best time to prepare, so can you talk a little bit about how they should prepare?

Kris Eide: I like to make sure that we remind everybody at least a couple times a year that they need to bring their family plan out and dust it off and make sure that it's still accurate for their family situation. And if they don't have a family plan, that this is the time of year that they want to develop one.

Because if we have severe weather and your family's not together, how are you going to communicate? If you have injuries, and you need to make sure that everybody has medical information that they have available to them, those kinds of things should be included in a plan.

Shenoy: Do you think they should have it in written form, or just have every family member know it?

Eide: I think that it needs to be in written form some way. Whether it's in an iPhone or iPad, in a backpack with your kids that they take to school, so that they can feel assured that if they need to communicate, they may have to do it through a third party, but they all go to the same party so that they can find each other if they're not together following some severe weather.

Shenoy: How do you get people to take this seriously?

Eide: Getting people to take this seriously is a challenge. When we look at things from a statewide perspective we look at the probability of something happening but we also look then at the consequence of something happening.

So even though you may be in an area that hasn't been hit by a tornado or severe weather in a very long time, the probability may be low but the consequences will be really high. So we need to make sure that everybody understands that when something happens, you need to listen to your official information so that you can protect yourself, your family, and your property. So you do need to take that very seriously because that one time it can happen to you.

Shenoy: When there's severe weather we get a lot of questions about what people in cars should do. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Eide: People in vehicles should try to get into a building as quickly as possible and as safely as possible. When I was younger they would always say 'go into a ditch and be as small a target as you possibly can be.' But it really is a lot safer to go into some kind of a building.

Shenoy: If they can't? Then is it safer to get in a ditch with their car and stay in their car?

Eide: You know I can't really say which one is safer. We've had deaths of people who've gone into the ditch and tried to protect their family member. [sic] We've also had people like the gentleman in north Minneapolis that perished when they stayed in the vehicle. If you saw the semi trailers in Dallas last week — I mean semi-trucks were flying through the air. Do you want to be in your vehicle? I don't know.

Shenoy: There's this point when there's severe weather and maybe you're in a car listening to the radio and you're like 'OK, when should I pull over? When should I make the call that this is serious enough for me to stop my trip and get in some kind of building.' When should they make that decision?

Eide: You should make the decision before you think you're going to need it. So if you're on a freeway you need to make sure you get off at the next exit and you find some kind of shelter. If you're on the freeway and there's a rest stop in two miles, get off there. But get off before you see the funnel cloud. Get off before you think that you will definitely need it. Because you don't want to be watching the storm barrel down at you.

Shenoy: Is there anything else people should know to do when there's severe weather?

Eide: They should go indoors, turn on their radios, turn on their television, listen to official information because it'll tell you what's in the path. Make sure that you have also some battery-operated radios that you have in an emergency kit that you should have in your safe place.

A great example again was from the Dallas tornado. There was a young mother who was not from a tornado-prone state. And her husband was. So they talked about — it was severe weather time, they should talk about getting a kit. Well they didn't have a basement so they put a kit in their bathroom. Sure enough, she and the baby had to be in the bathroom and she had formula and she had diapers, and she had the things that they needed because they had talked about that.

So you really need to make sure that you have those kinds of supplies so they can be ready when you are.

Shenoy: How are Minnesotans doing with preparedness? Are they improving? Or do they really need to be working on it?

Eide: I think personal preparedness is a really hard subject for a lot people to deal with because of the probabilities and because sometimes it seems overwhelming. But you should start small. So just making sure that you gather your phone numbers that you may need. Or you gather some things in the basement that you may need to have, so you have things like baby formula and pet food and that kind of thing.

It was shown after Katrina that there wasn't a lot of personal preparedness prior to Katrina, that the percentage of families who felt they were fully prepared did not go up significantly. So that's why we keep making sure we have these severe weather weeks, we have preparedness month, we have winter hazard awareness week, so that we can continue to make sure that people understand that this is an important thing for their family.

Shenoy: You haven't mentioned sirens. Should people be listening for sirens?

Eide: If they're outdoors they should be listening for sirens and remember that sirens are an outdoor warning system. That they could be sounded for something like a toxic cloud if it's not a severe weather incident. Outdoor warning sirens mean go indoors and listen to official information. It doesn't mean go to the basement. It means go indoors and listen to official information.

Shenoy: You're doing a bunch of stuff over the next month to educate folks. Is that right?

Eide: We are. This next coming week in particular is going to be our severe weather awareness week. We're going to have a different subject every day. For instance April 16th, Monday, is severe storm information, Tuesday is weather alerts and warning. Thursday is what we consider a really, really important day for people to practice. That's the tornado drill day.

So they're going to have two tornado drills during the day: one at 1:45 in the afternoon and one at 6:55 p.m. So everyone at work, if they work the day shift, can practice at 1:45 and then with your family at 6:55. So we think that we're kind of catching people who work afternoon shifts at work at 6:55, 1:45 in the afternoon for the day shift, and then you can practice with your family.

Shenoy: Will you have any other siren tests the rest of the tornado season? Because I always wonder when I'm hearing it if it's just a test.

Eide: The test is the first Wednesday of the month at 1 p.m. That's consistent. So if it's 1 o'clock on a Wednesday and it's sunny weather, it's the test. Sometimes if it's going to be severe weather, they won't do that test if it's on the first Wednesday of the month. So with siren tests, you want to know that when you hear the siren test, you think about if this were actually something real — what would I do at this time? But it is the first Wednesday of every month at 1 p.m.

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