OUR OPINION: TORNADO Act could save lives, but we need more

Published 4:00 am Saturday, May 13, 2023

Sen. Roger Wicker announced this week the passage of the reintroduced Tornado Observation Research Notification and Deployment to Operations (TORNADO) Act through the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

After hearing the stories of people hit by the Rolling Fork tornado on March 24, we have to say this act would be a positive step toward preventing another high-casualty event for such a small town. Rolling Fork lost approximately 1 percent of its population in the tornado, and even more people than that were seriously injured.

Survivor after survivor told The Post and other news outlets the following sentence in the aftermath of the storm: “We had five minutes to find shelter.”

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The TORNADO Act, in essence, would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to update its methods for predicting and communicating weather alerts to residents. Imagine if updates had been in place prior to this natural disaster.

Every time bad weather is forecast, the news springs into action. We call our local emergency management personnel (in our case the incomparable John Elfer) as well as the National Weather Service office in Jackson to get the latest information to readers.

No matter what kind of weather is in the forecast, both NWS and Elfer preach the same thing: Have more than one way to get weather alerts. Don’t rely on Facebook or your computer or cell phone alone. Have a weather radio at your disposal and have the means to get the most localized information possible.

In a place like Warren County, where you’re surrounded by tiny municipalities and unincorporated areas, it’s easy to focus on the larger map dots during a weather event. Just think — when was the last time the TV meteorologist said “Yokena” or “Fitler” when reporting severe weather?

People still live in these smaller areas, and the TORNADO Act is designed to increase the reliability of severe weather reporting tools through NOAA in order to keep people safe.

Increased accuracy in reporting is only the tip of the iceberg, however.

For many in Rolling Fork, as the NBC special report published on vicksburgpost.com this week detailed, five or 10 or 20 more minutes wouldn’t have made a difference in saving homes or lives. The closest verified storm shelter is 53 miles away in Morgan City, and it only holds 20 people.

The state of Mississippi doesn’t comprehensively track tornado shelters that are open to the public, and a list of the largest safe rooms isn’t available online. Warren County doesn’t have a storm shelter — something it has in common with eight of the 15 counties surrounding Sharkey County.

There is still more to be done in order to keep people in our part of the world safe in a severe weather event. But the TORNADO act is a good start. Maybe for their next act, Sens. Wicker or Cindy Hyde-Smith — our District 2 Congressional Rep. Bennie Thompson — will introduce legislation to fund storm shelters and the infrastructure to support them in Mississippi.