Tornado warning irks students stuck inside

Amy Siebels

Add to the list of great weather events in history the Tornado Warning of ’04. Last Saturday around 2:30 p.m. students across campus crowded into residence hall basements to wait out … what, exactly?”I was sitting in my room, didn’t even hear the sirens, until [a friend] came down and said, ‘What a wussy tornado warning,'” said senior Steve Geisthardt. “Sure enough, we opened the blinds and the skies were blue.”

Students reported blue skies to the east, but dark gray clouds and thunder from the west. So what actually happened?

Jeff Last, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Green Bay, had the real story. “A strong cold front moved across the state on Saturday, generating thunderstorms across central and eastern Wisconsin,” said Last. “Some of the storms became severe, and produced hail, wind gusts to 60 mph, and funnel clouds.”

A tornado warning for Outagamie County prompted Appleton’s warning sirens to sound, although Last said there were no touchdowns reported.

“A tornado watch means that conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes,” Last explained. “People should review their safety plans and be prepared to take action.

“A tornado warning [as on Saturday] means that a tornado — or developing tornado – is imminent for the warned area,” he said. “People should take proper action to stay safe.”

At Lawrence, “proper action” means taking cover in a basement or in an interior hallway on a lower floor, away from windows. Signs posted in all residence halls on campus explain the procedure.

Many residents found themselves inconvenienced by the storm. “I was making a sandwich in my dorm and then my RLA came by and told us to stop making sandwiches and go to the basement,” said freshman Drew Erensel.

Amy Uecke, associate dean for residence life, said that while RLAs may help out during severe weather, it is not their responsibility to do so. She said that tornado guidelines are in place to teach students how to protect themselves.

Still, some found the weather more annoying than threatening. Katie Maerzke, senior and Wisconsin native, had tickets to the 3:00 performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but at showtime she was still stuck in the Hiett basement. She got to the theater about 10 minutes later, to find that the show had already started. “The ushers let us in, but we had to walk in front of the stage and it disrupted the performance,” Maerzke said. “For the next 10 minutes or so people kept coming in.”

Postponement or cancellation of indoor events is decided on a case-by-case basis, according to LU safety commissioner Mark Musser. Kathy Privatt of the theatre arts department said the decision to proceed on time with Saturday’s play was probably based on audience turnout and a lack of imminent threat.

For outdoor events like Octoberfest, said Paul Shrode of campus activities, Lawrence defers to the Appleton Police Department to make the decision.

Not everyone’s day was disrupted by the storm. Some students didn’t even hear the sirens.

“I was lifeguarding at the rec center,” said sophomore Ashley Davis, “and didn’t even know that there was a tornado warning until one of my friends called me.”

While some students were caught off-guard by the storm, Last was not particularly surprised. “Wisconsin usually has a severe weather event in the early autumn, so this was not that unusual,” he said.

“Autumn in Wisconsin is a transition season. That means that both summer- and winter-like weather can occur,” Last explained. “We’ve had snowstorms in October in east-central Wisconsin as recently has 1989.”

Tornado season in Wisconsin is from April to October. Appleton tests its warning sirens at noon every Saturday during the season.