NOAA Weather Radio Expansion Protects South Dakota Residents

When an F-4 tornado roared into the community of Spencer, S.D., late in the evening of May 30, 1998, many residents were unaware of the violent winds headed their way despite warnings from the Sioux Falls weather forecast office. After that night, NOAA’s National Weather Service and many partners took action to ensure all future severe weather warnings would be available to all South Dakota residents.

Before the tornado hit, the storm had knocked out electrical power, including to the town’s outdoor warning siren. NOAA’s National Weather Service forecast office in Sioux Falls had issued a tornado warning about eight minutes before the tornado, which would have cued sounding the siren. Many residents did not receive the warning.

The tool that could have provided access to the tornado warning and conveyed the urgent need to take shelter below ground was also not available. NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards broadcasts of the warning, were barely out of the reach for Spencer residents. The community is in extreme western McCook County, about 45 miles west of Sioux Falls, which was the site of the nearest of four transmitters in the state at the time.

Today, Spencer receives NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts from a transmitter in Mitchell, about 20 miles away and well within the 40-mile broadcast range. That transmitter is the first of 14 installed around the state since the devastating tornado. NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts are now available to more than 95 percent of South Dakota residents.

Originating from the forecast area of each of NOAA’s 123 National Weather Service offices, NOAA Weather Radio All Hazard provides instant notice of severe weather and floods as well as other natural and man-made disasters. The broadcast range for transmitters is about 40 miles, depending on terrain.

The NOAA team that surveyed Spencer and other areas damaged by the storms recommended the Weather Service expedite its plan for NOAA Weather Radio expansion in South Dakota. In partnership with South Dakota U.S. Senator Tim Johnson, local and area officials, Weather Service personnel from Sioux Falls, Kansas City and national headquarters worked to ensure funding and equipment availability. 

“The assessment team’s recommendation gave impetus to efforts by our staff and the regional office to put Weather Radio expansion on a fast track,” said Greg Harmon, meteorologist in charge of the Sioux Falls office. “We sped up the process of locating transmitter sites, securing outside sponsorship and getting equipment on site and transmitters on the air. Lots of people inside and outside the National Weather Service on both the local and national levels dedicated themselves to ensuring South Dakota residents had direct access to all severe weather warnings in the future.”

The nationwide NOAA Weather Radio network claims more than 985 transmitters, covering all 50 states, adjacent coastal waters, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and U.S. Pacific Territories.

Available at most electronics and discount stores, receivers come in many sizes, with a variety of functions and costs.  Some receivers automatically sound an alarm and turn themselves on if a severe weather warning is broadcast, and can be programmed to warn of weather and civil emergencies in only a listener’s home area.  Most NOAA Weather Radio receivers are either battery-operated portables or AC-powered desktop models with battery backup.  Some televisions, scanners, Ham radios, CB radios, short wave receivers and AM/FM radios also are capable of receiving NOAA Weather Radio transmissions.

On the web:

National Weather Service:
NOAA Weather Radio:

Contact:          Warning Coordination Meteorologist Todd Heitkamp: (605) 330-4244 
                        Public Affairs Specialist Patrick Slattery:  (816) 268-3135



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