MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This year's season has already been deadly. Almost 200 tornados have been reported across the country, including one that tore through Enterprise, Alabama, collapsing the roof at the local high school. Nine were killed in all.
Another tornado system in Central Florida killed more than 20 people in the middle of the night. Nancy Mathis has spent a lot of time studying tornado warning systems. She's the author of the book "Storm Warming: The Story of a Killer Tornado." It's an account of the biggest tornado on record in U.S. history. She says the nation's warning system could be improved, and one simple way is to make sure all Americans have one of these.
(Soundbite of radio broadcast)
Unidentified Man: …today cooler, cloudy, a chance of rain showers, highs in the mid-40s.
NORRIS: What you're hearing there is a radio signal broadcast by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Ms. NANCY MATHIS (Author, "Storm Warming: The Study of a Killer Tornado"): NOAA Weather Radio is a continuous signal that is sent out 24 hours a day. And you need like a scanner or a receiver, a special receiver to pick it up, but it also will sound an alarm to wake you up in the middle of the night.
NORRIS: How much would a radio like this cost?
Ms. MATHIS: These radios run from $30 to $150, depending on what kind of extras you get on them. Also, it's not just weather. I want to make that clear too. It's an all-hazard alert system. So if there is a chemical spill in your area or some sort of national emergency or something, it will also sound an alarm and wake you up for that too.
NORRIS: So why don't more people have these?
Ms. MATHIS: Most people aren't aware of them, I believe. And any time there's a horrible incident like there was in Florida where you had people asleep who didn't hear the warnings, there's a rush on these NOAA weather radios and then the excitement for them kind of ebbs away.
NORRIS: Now there's one warning system that some communities are considering right now, reverse 911 system. How would that work?
Ms. MATHIS: There are a number of projects being tried out where you can use the telephone or the cell phone or pagers, where the National Weather Service or the Weather Channel, for instance, can key into your cell phone and notify you of severe weather.
NORRIS: So you get a personal phone call basically saying bad weather's on the way.
Ms. MATHIS: Exactly, or a text message.
NORRIS: What warning system do most communities use? Do they still rely with the old siren systems?
Ms. MATHIS: You know, in Tornado Alley and in the Midwest they definitely use the tornado sirens, the old civil defense sirens, and they've been adapted for tornado use and emergency management use. In the more urban areas or in rural areas you really don't have those warning signals, so you really have to depend on your local media.
And if you have a television, of course, television is usually broadcasting the National Weather Service emergency warnings and stuff. But if your electricity goes out, if you don't have a battery powered radio you can really be in the dark when something's going on.
NORRIS: Nancy, it's been good to talk to you.
Ms. MATHIS: You, too.
NORRIS: Thanks for coming in.
Ms. MATHIS: Thank you.
NORRIS: That was Nancy Mathis. She's the author of "Storm Warming: The Story of a Killer Tornado."