When public safety experts say "this is a good thing," it's usually a lesson worth learning.
Such was the case last week with a string of tornadoes that raked north-Central Illinois, including Pontiac, where seven people were injured.
"Thank God for today's technology because I think that helped saved a lot of lives," Livingston County Sheriff Tony Childress told The Pantagraph. "Everybody seemed to get warning about this storm and were able to seek safety. This could have been a whole lot worse."
Pontiac Mayor Bob Russell agreed. "When you see all of the damage here, the fact that nobody was hurt more seriously is a miracle."
The sirens that blare at 10 a.m. on the first Tuesday of every month are not just a distraction but a true test of whether municipal sirens are working and audible for the geographic area they cover. When weather strikes, the sirens warn of impending danger. They are a signal for you to take cover immediately. Weather radios bleep their warnings; television programs are interrupted with emergency alerts; cellphones ring with weather-service news.
All of those warnings, working in tandem with early warning systems developed by the National Weather Service and others, should provide ample opportunity for the largest number of people to find shelter during a storm. That, and a path along the edge of Pontiac — rather than through the middle — prevented a lot more injuries.
Not every storm can be predicted, however, which is why common sense also comes into play. In Illinois, severe storms and tornadoes can hit any time of the year, not just during spring and summer. They can be as destructive at midday as they can at midnight; early warning sirens and announcements are crucial in keeping the largest number of people safe.
We have to practice drills and go over emergency plans so we can find each other in the wake of devastating weather. Make sure you have a stash of first-aid supplies, water, cash, a blanket and nonperishable food available either in your car or basement, or both. Take a first-aid class and learn CPR. Take a weather-spotter class from the National Weather Service.
Illinois averages 47 tornadoes and hundreds of reports of large hail and wind damage each year, according to the weather service. A "watch" means tornadoes or severe thunderstorms are possible. A "warning" means a tornado or severe thunderstorm has been detected by radar, or has been reported by a trained storm spotter.
But all the warnings in the world won't help if you don't pay attention. When you hear a warning siren, get a cellphone warning or learn about a warning via media, take cover in a sturdy building and stay away from windows.
Severe weather and tornadoes can, and will, hit again. Central Illinois is in the heart of tornado country; make sure you are prepared when the next one arrives.