Are we prepared for severe weather?

Matt Jones talked to county officials about how prepared they are for tornadoes or other severe weather

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WYTV) – If another tornado touched down in the Valley, would we be prepared?

“Never say never.” That’s what the National Weather Service said when asked if the tornadoes that moved through the Mahoning Valley in 1985 could do so again.

Even though those chances are low, local government officials are already preparing for the worst.

Becoming StormReady

Locally, Mercer County is the only approved StormReady county in our viewing area, meaning the county’s severe weather plan meets the National Weather Service’s standards. 

Those recommendations include establishing a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center and developing a formal hazardous weather plan, among other recommendations.

Frank Genetti, director of Mercer County Emergency Management Agency, said he felt strongly that the county should obtain any certification related to severe weather response. He said it’s more than just educating the public about severe weather.

“The good thing about being StormReady is that we can identify our deficiencies and make sure to exceed the certification requirements,” he said.

That’s why Columbiana County is also going through the tough process of becoming StormReady.

Columbiana County EMA Director Peggie Clark said being StormReady means being committed to the community.

“It just should reassure the public that we are working hard to make sure we are doing everything we need to do to keep them safe,” she said.

As EMA directors prepare for severe weather, the National Weather Service said just being classified as StormReady doesn’t mean communities are storm-proof. Officials need to take other steps to ensure the safety of residents, including having emergency plans and ways to receive alerts.

“Make sure you have ways to get weather information. If you have a Smartphone, wireless emergency alert, we’ll get you the information, but it’s always good to have two ways to get information,” said Fred McMullen, a meteorologist with the Pittsburgh National Weather Service.

How counties prepare for severe weather 

Because Trumbull and Mahoning counties don’t meet the same StormReady standards, does that mean they’re not ready for the next tornado in the Valley?

Linda Beil, director of the Trumbull County Emergency Management Agency, says that’s not the case.

“Some of the stuff on StormReady — we have an emergency operations center. We have a 24-hour 911 center for any messages we have to send through,” she said.

On top of maintaining a level of readiness, both counties have an emergency action plan, provide educational opportunities to the public and service warning sirens to their communities.

“When you have a staff of two people, you got to pick and choose what’s your priority, and as long as we are warning our citizens and taking care of our citizens, we will work on when we get to that point,” she said.

Mahoning County has 52 sirens that are tested every Saturday. The sirens are designed for outside use only. So if you can’t hear them during the weekend tests, that means you won’t be able to hear them during a tornado warning.

“The thought behind the design is to notify you to turn to the media to find additional information,” said Dennis O’Hara, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency.

How do universities prepare for severe weather? 

Local schools took part in the annual statewide tornado drill on Wednesday, which helps faculty and students know what to do in the case of a weather emergency. If colleges — like Youngstown State University — don’t have to participate, are they still prepared for severe weather threats?

At YSU, most students commute to and from campus on a daily basis.

YSU spokesman Ron Cole said even though students are on different schedules, they would be notified about any issues through YSU’s alert system.

“Their emails are automatically put into the system. They do need to go on though and input their cell phones,” he said.

Cole said he would like more people to sign up for the text alerts. He said less than half of the students are signed up.

There are sirens and a PA system on campus to warn students of an incoming tornado. Some students said, however, that they haven’t received weather alerts and didn’t know what to do in an emergency while they’re on campus.

Cole said YSU is rolling out a new alert system in the next couple of months that he believes will improve the situation. YSU has information on its current alert system, and how to sign up for text alerts, on its website.

How to keep your family safe 

In order to help keep your family safe, you should talk about what everyone should do when severe weather strikes. Make sure each family member knows where to go when the sirens go off and what items should already be in that safe location.

Here are steps that will help your family stayed prepared:

Identify Shelter Locations: An ideal shelter is an underground area such as a basement. Consider the following:

  • Seek a small interior room or hallway on the lowest floor possible. Ideal locations are rooms constructed with reinforced concrete, brick or block with no windows and a heavy concrete floor or roof system overhead.
  • Stay away from doors, windows and outside walls.
  • Stay in the center of the room and avoid corners because they attract debris.

Set up a Basic Disaster Supplies Kit: A basic emergency supply kit could include some of the following recommended items:

  • Three-day supply of food and water
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio
  • First aid kit
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Manual can opener for food
  • Cell phone with chargers, inverter or solar chargers
  • Copies of important documents

Weather Watchers will be asked to report snow totals, weather damage and send in photos.