Early Warnings Saved Lives In Weekend Storms

The death toll from Sunday's tornado outbreak across the Midwest stands at eight. Many of those who witnessed the devastation say they're shocked that number isn't higher. Early warnings delivered by text message may have helped limit the casualties.

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The death toll from tornados that struck the Midwest on Sunday stands at eight. And many of those who witnessed the devastation say they're shocked the number is not higher.

NPR's David Schaper reports that early warnings delivered by text message may have helped to limit the casualties.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: At about 10:45 Sunday morning, Associate Pastor Casey Taylor was watching the Crossroads United Methodist Church in Washington, Illinois begin to fill up with close to 400 worshippers.

PASTOR CASEY TAYLOR: And suddenly everybody's cellphones started buzzing at the same time. I did not have mine on me, but other people immediately said there's a tornado warning for us.

SCHAPER: Taylor says he and other church staff members herded everyone together and moved them down to storm shelter rooms.

TAYLOR: And so we hunkered down in those rooms, and you could hear, for about 60 seconds straight, that locomotive thunder as it went by.

SCHAPER: The powerful EF-4 tornado barreled through, sparing the church, but completely obliterating several smaller buildings no more than 50 yards away, after cutting a half-mile-wide path of sheer destruction through a neighboring subdivision. The saving grace, Pastor Taylor says, was the National Weather Service's warning, giving area residents 15 critical minutes to seek shelter.

TAYLOR: Having those emergency alert systems could very well have been instrumental in saving people's lives.

CHRIS MILLER: What we do is we outline an area on a map.

SCHAPER: Chris Miller with the National Weather Service's Central Illinois office. He explains that better forecasting is increasingly allowing meteorologists to pinpoint where a tornado is going.

MILLER: And any cell towers that are within that area that we designate as being in the warning, then those cell towers will broadcast that information to people with phones in that location.

SCHAPER: There's no need to sign up. The dangerous weather text alerts will automatically chime on most newer cellphones. So Miller says the National Weather Service can warn those who are most likely at risk, rather than issuing a blanket warning covering an entire county.

MILLER: That allows us to really get a much better message out there to people, so that when they receive the warning, then they know they are definitely within the path of that storm, and it's not, you know, on the other side of the county, or something like that.

SCHAPER: Relieved that the loss of life was not nearly as bad as it could have been, the residents of Washington, Illinois now turn to the tasks of recovering whatever they can salvage from the rubble, cleaning up the huge field of debris and finding long-term housing for the thousands displaced by the storm.

David Schaper, NPR News, in Washington, Illinois.

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