What's the wailing about? Tornado sirens not practical in Houston

HOUSTON - Tornadoes in Texas are a fact of life. They're as common here as the August heat but many times more destructive. However, tornaodes have many different types, shapes and sizes. 

Earlier this week up to seven tornadoes hit northeast Texas with Van Zandt county and the town of Canton being the epicenter of death and destruction. 

In an editorial meeting last Tuesday, in lieu of a recent survey by NOAA showing Harris County being the second most prone tornado county in the country, the question was raised why Houston doesn't have tornado sirens when our neighbors to the north in Dallas, a "less" tornado prone area, does.

As stated previously, no tornado is the same and the span of 200 miles that separates the two behemoth metro areas of Houston and Dallas is the difference in weak, short lived tornadoes of southeast Texas and the mile-wide, EF 3, 4 and 5 tornadoes often seen in news footage after a large, imposing outbreak.

Houston lies along the gulf coast in a very sub-tropical, humid airmass. You don't need me to tell you that. Just look at the frizz ball you call hair. The humidity is so thick you can practically wear it. Tornadoes that develop in that sort of environment are of the weaker variety, touching down for brief moments of time, often for only a few hundred yards -- perhaps a mile -- before they lift and dissipate. That makes an elaborate system of sirens in Houston impractical.

According to Michael Walters of the Houston Office of Emergency Management, ''the tornadoes in the Houston area often spin up with little warning and are gone just as quick. By the time the warning is issued and the OEM authorizes the activation of the sirens, the tornado threat has passed or the tornado has long since lifted."

Walters goes on to say that the geography and large sprawl of the Houston area limits the impacts sirens would  otherwise have in other smaller, more rural towns. "Sirens cover such a small location," Walters says. "You would have to activate multiple sirens and inadvertently warn thousands of people who are in no danger at all."

It makes sense for Dallas to have sirens. They lie in the heart of tornado alley. They have a drier, more continental environment which breeds larger, stronger, long-lived and more deadly tornadoes. You don't have to go back very far to find an EF 3, 4 or 5 that hit Dallas county. In fact it was just under two years ago that a large, EF-4 tornado wiped out portions of Garland the day after Christmas 2015. 

"The last time Harris County had a tornado that strong? You'd have to go back to November of 1992 when an F4 rated tornado destroyed portions of Channelview in Chambers County.'' Walters said. Tornadoes that touch down in north Texas can be on the ground for miles and last many minutes -- perhaps an hour or more. The Canton tornado is just another example in a long list of long-tracked, strong twisters familiar to that area with it's 51 mile long path. Sirens make more sense there.

According to Dennis Mersereau of TheVanetornado sirens were never meant to be heard indoors anyway.

"In the days before the internet, smartphones, and auto-activating weather radios, communities across the country repurposed their wartime air raid sirens for tornado alerts. These systems allowed people who were outside to run for shelter before the storm arrived and caught them hoeing away in the fields. That's the key --- they're designed for people outside. You are not meant to hear the tornado sirens indoors, especially today, when homes and businesses are able to muffle sound better than they were a half century ago." Mersereau wrote.

Today's technology has a leg up on sirens. The OEM has the ability to warn of tornadoes along with other life-threatening situations including flash floods by sending out mass alerts to cell phones, very much like the Amber Alerts. 

Walters says that there are ways to even improve that technology. They are going to submit a proposal to the City of Houston to issue alerts on terrorist attacks, chemical spills or other large disruptive or life-threatening situations. 

At the end of the day, your security and safety is your responsibility. Large outbreaks often are no surprise.

Therefore next time there's a chance of severe weather and or tornadoes, heed the warning. The days of ''no warning'' are almost entirely gone. The Storm Prediction Center, National Weather Service, Office of Emergency Management or any NOAA agency are working around the clock issuing watches, warnings and advisories, some many days in advance. Those who are caught by surprise in the era of satellites, smart phones and internet haphazardly disregarded the possibilities and did so to their own peril.  

 

 

 

 

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