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National Weather Service Prepares to Expand Severe Weather Warning System

Franklin County sounded its weather warning sirens to mark the start of tornado season in Ohio. The Emergency Management Agency says the sirens are positioned to blanket the county to alert people to impending severe weather. But, adequate warning of a tornado or severe thunderstorm remains a challenge. This week, WOSU News visited the Upper Albany West neighborhood where a torndo struck last fall with little warning

Along Rackley Way on the city's far northeast side, Manuel Gutierrez, this week is busy hanging drywall. Several houses on the block were damaged by a tornado that touched down last October 11th. Gutierrez says work is now finished on several of the damaged houses. He explains that two houses across the alley were under construction when the storm struck. They were flattened, but have since been re-built.

At the end of the block, Mary Lovejoy, has just moved back in to her new home after making 30-thousand dolars in repairs. But, she remembers vividly that October day last fall. "I was laying on the couch with my two dogs and it was showing tornadoes, not in this area, I think it was in Pickerington, and it was really windy." Says Lovejoy.

The National Weather Service that evening had issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Franklin County. Franklin County had activated its warning sirens. But, weather service information indicated the storm cell was located near Lake Darby on the far southwest side and was moving east toward Columbus, Bexley, Gahanna and Reynoldsburg. Lovejoy relaxed a little. "And I could barely here the tornado sirens but of course combined with that and seeing on the television there was no tornado activity but the noise, the wind kept getting louder and I opened up the back door and that's when I heard the so-called train." Says Lovejoy.

The so-called train is a tell-tale sound of an approaching tornado. Lovejoy knew then she had little time to take cover.

While Lovejoy and her neighbors in the Upper Albany West sub-division were a little surprised by the the October tornado, National Weather Service Meteorologist Mary Jo Parker says her agency is working on what it calls a "storm-based" warning system to more accurately predict damaging winds, hail, and tornadoes. "And the idea is to give the public a better feel for exactly where the threat is and where the storm is moving." Says Parker.

Parker says the warning system will specify areas within a county and refer to well-known landmarks like highways, rivers and streams. And computer software will allow private vendors to distribute storm warnings.

Parker says the "storm-based" warning system has been tested in Ohio since 2005 and will be expanded nationally in October. For now, Parker urges Ohioans to purchase a NOAA weather emergency radio where warnings are broadcast seconds after they're issued.

And as the spring storm season begins, Mary Lovejoy says now that she's lived through a tornado she'll pay more attention to severe weather warnings,

Tom Borgerding WOSU News.