Are You Prepared for When Tornado Sirens Sound?

Paul Pogue
Written by Paul Pogue
Updated June 15, 2021
Tree cleanup
Tree-O Tree Service cuts down a fallen tree in front of an apartment building on Meridian St. in Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy of Steve C. Mitchell)

Public safety officials say the most crucial reaction to tornadoes comes before the warning. They recommend practicing a plan and using multiple alert methods.

The distinct pitch of tornado sirens soon will sound in the Indianapolis area, alerting local residents to approaching storms. But while the minutes following an alert prove critical, public safety officials say the most important reaction to a tornado warning happens long before the siren sounds.

“You need to have a plan and you need to practice it,” says Tom Sivak, executive director for the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency. “If you don’t have a plan and something happens, you start to panic when it’s actually going on.”

Hoosiers who may be jaded from years of weather alerts must still treat tornado warnings seriously, says John Erickson, senior public information officer for the state Department of Homeland Security. “Tornadoes are an incredibly violent storm,” he says. “They have the capacity to level homes, damage all types of property and do harm to you and your loved ones.”

Once a tornado warning sounds, officials recommend immediately seeking shelter in basements, inner rooms or storm cellars, and to avoid exterior walls, doors or windows. If trapped outside, don’t try to outrun the tornado in a car or seek shelter under an overpass, where tornadoes generate even more wind speed and suction. Instead, lie flat in a ditch or low area.

Build a shelter

If your home doesn’t have a basement, Sivak suggests investing in a below-ground shelter. “I have one in my home, and when we had the tornado warning last year while I was at work, it gave me great peace of mind to know my wife and 18-month-old son could go down there,” he says. “And since we had practiced it in advance, my son didn’t flip out when they were in there.”

Matt Wharff, owner of highly rated Wharff Excavating in Brownsburg, says he installed about 75 shelters last year in garages and yards, up from 10 per year just a few years ago. He says he installs most in a single day, with costs ranging from $3,500 to $8,500, depending on size. “They really started to take off when it became clear the weather was changing and it was going to get nastier,” he says.

Indianapolis member Kathy Kluwan hired Wharff to install a shelter in her backyard last year at a cost of $4,500. Since she doesn’t have a basement, she says the shelter gives her and her husband confidence that they know what to do when disaster strikes. “I used to always freak out when there was a tornado warning, but I feel much better having the shelter there,” she says. “We’ve had two close calls since then, where we had our wallets and phones down there and were ready for a tornado. I have a weather radio and another portable one, and we always keep pillows, blankets and water down in the shelter.”

Buy a weather radio

Weather experts say Kluwan planned wisely by purchasing a weather radio, which activates an alarm when the National Weather Service declares a warning, rather than depend solely on sirens to alert her to a possible tornado. “There’s a misconception that the sirens are for everyone, when they’re really intended as an outdoor warning system,” says Gary Coons, director of the Indianapolis Division of Homeland Security.

When selecting a weather radio, check to see that it’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-compatible and equipped with the Specific Area Message Encoder, which ensures your radio only alerts you to emergencies in your area. “Having a weather radio in your house should be just as common as having a smoke detector,” Coons says.

Utilize other technology

The smartphone provides yet another avenue for receiving timely weather information. Sivak advises signing up for the Commercial Mobile Alert System, which equips most smartphones to receive text alerts about local warnings for tornadoes, terrorism and other natural disasters. The NWS began broadcasting alerts via CMAS in 2012.

The NWS transmits warnings by area, not phone number, so your phone should pick up alerts for wherever it’s physically located. “If you’re from out of town and you come here for the Indy 500, you’ll still get the alert for this area as long as you’re hitting a cell tower,” Coons says.

Most smartphones from 2012 and later should have CMAS already installed, but Sivak says check the phone’s settings to be sure it’s activated.

He also recommends augmenting CMAS with another free app, such as the Red Cross’ tornado app, which transmits alerts about whatever area the phone user selects. “It may seem excessive, but you have to have many stopgap measures to be fully informed,” he says. “Being informed is the biggest piece of the pie. It’s another failsafe.”