LI officials ponder adding tornado sirens

A tree covers the street at Kings Point

A tree covers the street at Kings Point Road and Pond Road in Kings Point. (Sept. 17, 2010) (Credit: William Perlman)

Emergency officials in Suffolk and Nassau counties are considering whether to add sirens to their arsenal of public warning devices after tornadoes ripped through Queens and Brooklyn last week, causing one death, felling trees and leaving behind extensive property damage.

Officials in both counties now rely mainly on alerts carried by radio and television stations.

"After what's happened, we're definitely going to go back and consider it," Joseph F. Williams, Suffolk's commissioner of emergency management, said Saturday. Nassau officials said they also are reviewing whether to add sirens, operated by local fire departments, to their overall warning system.

Officials in both counties say they have expanded public alert systems in recent years to include emergency updates sent by text messages and automated calls to land-line home phones. Because of tornadoes' volatility, Williams said Suffolk might expand its system to include sirens, already in place in the county's 109 fire departments.

"The biggest challenge" would be to educate the public about a special blast signifying the imminent possibility of such storms, he said.

The quick-forming tornadoes and "macroburst" Thursday evening in Brooklyn and Queens were relatively rare events here and gave little time for warning, experts say. In Brooklyn, for example, there was only a nine-minute warning from the National Weather Service before the tornado touched down at 5:33 p.m. - the usual length of an alert for a storm that can form in a matter of minutes, according to the weather service.

The second tornado, through Queens, "came closer to Nassau at 5:42, and the warning went out at 5:36," said Matt Scalora, of the weather service in Upton.

That tornado caused the death of a Pennsylvania woman who was in her car on the Grand Central Parkway. A "macroburst" - an intense gush of storm wind pushing down on the ground - collapsed trees and power lines in a five-mile path of destruction in Middle Village and Forest Hills.

Weather service officials say there have been 10 tornadoes in the New York area since 1950, including the two Thursday and another tornado that touched down in the Bronx in July.

"We've had three [tornadoes] this year, but it's not a trend," Scalora added.

On Long Island, sirens have not been used because of tornadoes' infrequency, and the counties have relied on other ways of sending emergency alerts.

Suffolk sends alerts through text messages or automated telephone calls to 8,000 people who have signed up for the service. The reasons for an alert, Williams said, "can range from a mosquito spraying in your area to a large event" such as a hurricane or other possible emergency.

Nassau has set up a rapid-fire emergency alert system that can send out 3,000 telephone calls a minute, according to the county website.

Williams said a tornado siren alert, if approved by the county and cooperating fire departments, probably would require a distinctive 10 blasts so the public could tell it apart from the more common, long, moaning sirens.

It's unclear if, or when, either county would approve siren calls for tornado warnings.

Tornadoes, the dark, swirling, cylindrical clouds reminiscent of the film "The Wizard of Oz," are familiar, feared occurrences in the so-called "tornado alley" of the nation's heartland and across the Deep South.

"Tornado sirens are common in the central part of the United States," said Keli Tarp, of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Though NOAA experts provide the basic information, local emergency officials usually issue the alerts.

"It's decided locally when to set them off," she said of the siren blasts. "Each community decides, but not us."

Staying safe if you are . . .

 

AT HOME The basement offers the greatest safety. Seek shelter under sturdy furniture if possible. In homes without basements, stay in the center of the lowest floor, in a small room such as a closet or bathroom or under sturdy furniture. Leave mobile homes; if there is no shelter nearby, take cover on low, protected ground.

OUT SHOPPING Go to a designated shelter area, not to your parked car.

IN THE OFFICE Go to an interior hallway on lowest floor or a designated shelter area.

IN SCHOOL Go to a designated shelter area, usually an interior hallway on the lowest floor. If the building is not of reinforced construction, go to the nearest one that is or take cover outside on low, protected ground. Stay out of auditoriums, gyms and other structures with wide, free-span roofs.

IN A CAR Leave it and seek shelter in a sturdy building or lie flat in a ditch or ravine.

IN OPEN COUNTRY Lie flat in the nearest ditch or ravine.

ALL CASES Avoid windows.

SOURCE: Suffolk County Department Of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services

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