Sirens might not be enough: Why you should have multiple weather alert systems at your disposal

  • Cleanup continues in Naperville after a severe storm and tornado ripped though on Sunday night.

      Cleanup continues in Naperville after a severe storm and tornado ripped though on Sunday night. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Sunday's tornado caused extensive damage to a Woodridge neighborhood.

      Sunday's tornado caused extensive damage to a Woodridge neighborhood. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/25/2021 8:17 PM

Bill Kelly and his daughter didn't even make it down the stairs before the windows in their Naperville home shattered around them.

After hearing a tornado siren late Sunday night, Kelly had precious seconds, by his estimate, to wake up his daughter and dash for cover in the stairwell.

 

They had just started heading down to the ground level when the tornado churned through their neighborhood, blowing out glass throughout his home on 77th Street, destroying the side of his garage and sending the door to his master bedroom flying into the landing.

"We had very little time," Kelly said.

Sunday's tornado spun a 16-mile path from Naperville through Willow Springs in the middle of the night, developing rapidly out of a line of thunderstorms and underscoring why you shouldn't rely on sirens alone for alerts, meteorologists said.

"There was a warning," said Paul Sirvatka, a meteorology professor at the College of DuPage in the Glen Ellyn. Though it may have seemed to be "very little time for a warning, that's the nature of these events."

The National Weather Service issued the first tornado warning for parts of DuPage and Kane counties at 10:43 p.m. Sunday. A second warning came at 11:05 p.m., about four or five minutes before the tornado reached its peak intensity, meteorologists said.

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At its strongest, the tornado hammered an area around Princeton Circle in Naperville with winds of 140 miles per hour, reducing one home to a pile of rubble.

Lead times -- how much advance notice is given before a twister strikes -- tend to run longer ahead of big tornado outbreaks or in the context of supercell thunderstorms, said Mike Bardou, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service's Romeoville office.

"The environment is more favorable. Some of the signals are clearer," Bardou said.

But on Sunday, there was a line of thunderstorms moving "pretty rapidly" toward the east, Bardou said.

"There's tornadoes that are associated with lines of thunderstorms, which is what we saw the other night," he said. "Those tend to develop much more rapidly and with few solid indications that (a tornado) might be ready to occur."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Sirvatka said he believes the sirens went off as quickly as they could have. But he stressed that the tornado siren system is an outdoor warning designed to instruct people who are not in their homes to seek shelter. Naperville's 911 center activated sirens just before 11:07 p.m.

"The fact that people can hear sirens from their house is a benefit," he said, but it shouldn't be their only method of warning. Even if you can hear an outdoor siren during the monthly test, the sound of rain and wind could block it out in a real storm.

One of the most reliable methods to hear a warning inside your home or while you're sleeping is an emergency weather alert radio. Such radios will sit quietly until relaying the threat of a tornado or a severe thunderstorm warning, which also was issued before Sunday's twister.

"We call it the smoke detector of severe weather," Bardou said.

And make sure to enable the Wireless Emergency Alert function on cellphones to receive tornado warnings. Four alerts were issued on Sunday between 9:43 p.m. and 11 p.m. to customers in Illinois, a T-Mobile spokeswoman said.

There's another reason why people should have several sources for tracking extreme weather.

Social science studies conducted after major tornadoes show that people "sometimes need multiple taps on the shoulder" before they actually take action, Bardou said.

Despite the tornado's destructive force -- in Woodridge alone, 400 homes were damaged, 157 of them significantly -- fewer than a dozen people suffered reported injuries that required medical treatment, village officials and the weather service said.

In order to receive weather warnings on your smartphone, you'll need to turn them on under notifications in your settings.
  In order to receive weather warnings on your smartphone, you'll need to turn them on under notifications in your settings. - Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

" A lot of folks were able to find safety and minimize their risk as much as they could in this situation," Bardou said. "Given the number of homes that were affected and the number of people in those areas a lot of people were able to stay safe."

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