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Recent tornado a reminder to prepare for severe weather

By Paul Harris

The tornado that swept through Harveyville Tuesday evening claiming one life was a reminder to all Riley County residents that it’s tornado season. Harveyville, in eastern Wabaunsee County, is little more than an hour’s drive from Manhattan.

Those reminders are important to the city’s substantial transient population, including many Fort Riley soldiers and Kansas State University students, many of whom have never seen a tornado. A tornado struck Manhattan in 2008, doing millions of dollars of damage to homes, apartments and Kansas State University buildings. No one was killed.

K-State, which has a couple of tornado sirens on campus, is installing an alarm system in every building, said Steven Galitzer, director of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety. The warning system alerts the building’s inhabitants with flashing lights, a scrolling message, and a siren. The new system has been installed in 30 of the 100 buildings on campus, including all of the residence halls. Galitzer said the university also sends text messages and emails. Riley County has a similar system in place, said Riley County Emergency Management Coordinator Laurie Harrison.

Galitzer cautioned that there is a fine line in sounding alarms. “You don’t want to alert people too much because if they get too many messages, then they are likely to ignore them,” he said. “But you want to protect them.”

The new building warning systems will only be triggered for a tornado warning during severe weather.

The International Student Service Center, which focuses on Kansas State’s nearly 1,800 foreign students, puts on a weather seminar every semester. Mary Knapp, state climatologist, covers all severe weather systems, not just tornadoes. She also tells students about the tornado sirens and asks students whether they know where to go during a tornado. Knapp tells students that tornadoes can occur anywhere.

But increasing awareness involves more than merely making the information available. Like many Kansans, most international students have never seen a tornado.  Maria Beebe, assistant director of the center, who is from the east coast, said even she was unfamiliar with tornado sirens.

“When the sirens go off, it means there is a fire,” Beebe said she used to assume.

The university is not the only source for Manhattan residents hoping to learn more about severe weather. Harrison coordinates a number of meetings throughout the year designed for incoming and current residents.

The program informs people about evacuation plans, including what to do after the storm has hit, where to go during a storm, and the dangers of severe thunderstorms. While the programs can help prepare people for tornadoes, Harrison said early notification is the best defense. There are 20 warning sirens in Manhattan, and 30 sirens total in all of Riley County.

Residents can also sign up for early alerts online. Harrison said the alerts are tied in to a feed from the National Weather Service. She also recommends buying an all-weather radio and creating an evacuation kit.

With National Severe Weather Week coming up, residents are encouraged to set up a plan now instead of waiting till a storm hits.

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