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Tornado-hit Missouri town calls for improved warning systems

The authorities in the Missouri town devastated by the worst tornado in modern history tested their warning sirens on Tuesday amid calls for better alarm systems to get people out of reach of violent storms.

At least 117 people were killed when the town of Joplin took a direct hit from a tornado. Hundreds of others remain missing in the town, which saw 30% of its buildings flattened.

Seventeen survivors have been found in the rubble of the town, officials said, but recovery operations were affected by violent weather. Two emergency workers were struck by lightning on Monday.

With forecasts of a new violent storm system heading for Oklahoma and south-western Missouri, the head of the national weather service said the authorities needed to do more to get people out of harm’s way. “We need to ask ourselves, what can we do to protect Americans?” Jack Hayes, the federal agency’s director, said. “I have to say, it’s not enough. We have to do more.”

The national weather service is considering introducing smartphone warnings and other systems to increase its warning capability.

Storm sirens sounded more than 20 minutes before the tornado hit Joplin just before 6pm on Sunday – more than the 13- or 14-minute average warning time, said Greg Carbin, the meteorologist who heads the weather service’s storm prediction centre. That should have been ample time to get to cover. But forecasters are growing concerned that people – especially those living in tornado-prone areas of the south and central United States – are becoming blase about warnings, or that the warnings are not getting through in time.

Increasing the warning lead time might even make the problem of complacency worse because it would also affect accuracy of forecasts, said Carbin.

“That is something we grapple with all the time,” said Carbin. “If we want to push the envelope with respect to predictions are we also going to overwarn or cry wolf too often? I would argue that there may be some signs we are already doing that.”

However, Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, suggested some people in Joplin could not hear the tornado sirens over strong winds and heavy rain.

“When the pressure caused those alarms to go off, there was so much rain, so much hail many of the folks couldn’t even hear it,” he said.

There were similar complaints after last month’s deadly tornadoes in Alabama and other southern states when thunderstorms blew down powerlines and weather service systems, leaving mobile phones as the only means of communication, Bob Henson of the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research said.

“People tend to confirm a warning themselves before acting. Did the sirens go off? What is the TV meteorologist saying? What are my family and friends Does it look like a tornado is approaching?doing?” he said. Fast-changing conditions also lead people to underestimate the danger or assume they have more time to get to safety.

And, Henson wrote in a recent blog, there may be no readily safe haven anyway. “As with other tornado outbreaks across the southern US, it’s likely that a disproportionate number of deaths occurred in mobile homes, which are not designed to withstand major tornadoes or other severe wind and water hazards.”