How a devastating tornado in 2001 established those early morning sirens you hear each month

By Greta Easthom 

When a tornado ripped through campus in Sept. 2001, Dr. Craig Carignan was at the Eppley Recreation Center and was ordered to the basement. When he was allowed back up 20 minutes later, the storm had already passed.

“I saw all these sheared trees and cars flipped,” said Carignan, noting that the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute on campus had received just a 10-minute warning.

The storm killed two sisters — both UMD students — after visiting their father, who worked as deputy director at the Institute at the time. Their car had been lifted into the air and thrown into a tree.

Carignan didn’t want to wait for the next emergency storm to take everyone by surprise.

“I thought, ‘knowledge is power,’” he said. “Let’s make ourselves safer.”

In Nov. 2001, Carignan pushed for the establishment of Skywarn on campus — a National Weather Service program for students to learn how to detect severe storms coming through.

Around 40 students signed up for the initial Basics I class, which was offered for free, according to Carignan.

This year, 80 to 90 participants have already registered for the class, which will take place April 21 from 2 to 4 p.m. in the School of Public Health.

The Basics I program “covers a little bit of everything,” including winter storms and flooding,  according to Carignan.

The class is run in part by MetoGrads, a group of UMD atmospheric oceanic science graduate students.

It was important for MetoGrads to host the first Skywarn class at University of Maryland, because it would…encourage folks outside of the meteorology program to become better educated on the threats associated with hazardous weather,” said former MetoGrads President Brian Guyer, who now works for National Weather Service.

Those who take the class are trained and officially promoted to ‘“Skywarn spotters” for the National Weather Service.

“They are able to offer detailed reports of hazardous weather occurring at their location,” Guyer said. “In many cases, these reports are located several miles away from the nearest automated surface observation and beyond the range of accurate detection from Doppler weather radars.”

Since 2003, a siren alertins the campus of dangerous conditions is tested the first Wednesday of every month. According to MetoGrads President Shaun Howe, Skywarn is responsible for that.

“It really only takes one person in a group of people to make a difference and help save people’s lives,” Howe said.

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