Commentary: The Text That Could Save Your Life

Even if you are the sort who never texts, you need to sign up for your local severe weather warning system. And before the next storm hits, help an elderly neighbor or loved one get registered, too.

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In rural areas we’re used to making do. When the power goes out in the winter, many of us stay toasty warm with wood heat. In the summer, we use our generators to keep freezers full of venison cold until the power comes back on. On a good day it generally takes at least 45 minutes for a utility repair truck to reach my area. On a bad day, we’re not surprised when repair units are diverted to more populated areas.

July 19 was a bad day in my neighborhood. Until then, I had never heard of the weather phenomenon known as a derecho. Here in northern Wisconsin, we know about tornadoes. One hit near my house in 2007, and I responded with our volunteer fire department. Even with that experience, I was completely unprepared for the devastation from hurricane-force straight-line winds that hit us this time.

A typical storm text alert. (Screenshot from Donna Kallner)

But my husband and I were in the basement when the derecho hit (at least until our fire department pagers went off). That’s because I was warned about approaching severe weather by a text alert sent to my phone from an automated system used by the Langlade County Sheriff’s Department.

I signed up for text alerts when they became available because of that 2007 tornado. In my area it’s a free service. And for anyone old enough to remember party lines and the telephone trees once used to dispatch firefighters and notify families of school closings, automated text alerts are the answer to many prayers.

You can also get recorded voice alerts sent to a landline here. But our landline was out before the storm (the absence of telemarketer robocalls tipped us off). Our cell service isn’t perfect, but text is still pretty reliable.

Except for some of our elders. I’m sure you’ve heard more than a few say “I don’t text.” Period. End of story. And I get it. When every day is filled with the challenges of aging, texting sounds frivolous and unnecessary. And it would be tough to compose texts on an old flip phone that only gets turned on when your elderly neighbor wants to make an outgoing voice call. But even that flip phone can probably receive a text alert about approaching severe weather when the power is out. And loved ones who live outside your area who are frantic with worry about their elders when landlines are out would really appreciate a quick “OK” text.

Since the storm, I’ve been helping my neighbors sign up for severe weather alerts on their cell phones and landlines, if they have them. For one neighbor who has no email address (required for registration) I used my own. Non-resident property owners and visitors to the area can sign up (campers are particularly at risk when severe weather hits). Adult children who no longer live nearby can sign up themselves and their elders who still live here at the same time.

Crews clean up after a recent ‘derecho’ in Wisconsin. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

You can probably do the same in your area. Use the non-emergency phone number for the local sheriff’s department, or message them on Facebook to ask how to sign up. If they don’t have a similar service in place, ask to speak with your county emergency management coordinator. That person can direct you to alternative resources.

Please don’t wait. This storm scared me more than the tornado. We were lucky no one was killed during either. Next time may be different. But when I get that next text alert, I’ll go straight to the basement. If your rural elders can’t manage stairs, tell them to go into the bathroom and stay until the storm has passed. People like our fire department volunteers will move heaven and earth to get to them as soon as possible.

Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in eastern Langlade County, Wisconsin. Copyright 2019 Donna Kallner.

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