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WEATHER: When the sirens sound; Keeping informed is vital during severe weather

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News Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

BEMIDJI -- This summer has seen a spate of severe weather -- including a nasty storm Monday -- but Beltrami County residents have several ways to protect themselves, both with walls and with information.

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Emergency Management Director Chris Muller said there's only one public-access emergency storm shelter in the county: Mt. Zion Church in the Nymore neighborhood of Bemidji. The shelter, operated by church staff, opened its doors Monday but nobody from the public weathered the storm there, Muller said.

Government buildings can also offer shelter during business hours, he said.

The reason there aren't more shelters in the area, Muller said, is because in order to serve as a shelter, a building needs to satisfy a number of requirements. It must be able to be open at at any time, day or night, and it must be handicap-accessible.

Beltrami County is working on creating more shelters, however, including one in Waskish Township near Red Lake. The Waskish town board and the county are pushing for the shelter because of the area's propensity for flooding. Muller said the Tamarac River that runs through the area is still high after flooding in June. The resort-heavy area also houses many campers and mobile homes, which don't offer as much protection, Muller said.

"It's very boggy and swampy, and a lot of residences don't have basements, so they have very limited places to seek shelter," Muller said.

Muller said an application has been sent in to the state for funding the Waskish shelter. The state awards money based on population density and history of severe weather, among other factors, he said.

From 1950 to 2013, Muller said, 29 confirmed tornadoes struck Beltrami County.

Ways of warning

The county warns residents about approaching severe weather with a mix of modern communications such as smartphone alerts and old standbys such as outdoor sirens. However, the best means of staying informed about severe weather warnings is to get a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) all-hazards radio and pay attention to alerts from the National Weather Service, Muller said.

"Oftentimes, from the 911 and emergency services perspective, the most accurate information we have comes directly from those sources," he said.

Beltrami County also issues alerts via cell phone to people subscribed to its CodeRED system. All that's required to subscribe to the free program is a cell phone capable of receiving text messages and a Beltrami County address, Muller said. Potential subscribers can go to the county's website -- http://www.co.beltrami.mn.us -- to sign up.

In addition to mobile phone alerts, there's also the analog version meant for people who are outdoors and away from electronic media sources: emergency sirens in Bemidji, Blackduck, Kelliher and Waskish.

The sirens on Monday were hampered by muggy conditions that impeded sound waves and thus reduced range, Muller said.

Muller said it's important for people to understand that hearing a siren does not necessarily mean there's a tornado.

"We also... use the outdoor warning sirens to indicate a weather emergency, meaning an intense severe thunderstorm with winds anticipated to be over 70 miles per hour," Muller said. "The reason we also include those intense severe thunderstorms is the fact that when they get into that 70-plus mile-per-hour range, it can do the same amount of damage that a low-end tornado can produce."

Muller also stressed that hearing one siren sound, then another does not mean an all clear. Rather, it signifies the exact opposite.

"That means there's a continued threat," he said.

In the event of severe weather, Muller said it's best to find an interior room on the lowest floor of your building, away from windows and exterior walls. It's important to plan ahead and identify a safe place, for example, agreeing with neighbors to let you take shelter in their house if it offers better protection.

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Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
(218) 333-9791
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