Just minutes before the tornadoes struck in central Illinois Sunday, on top of TV or radio warnings and sirens, many people got the message on their cell phone. It's part of a fairly new wireless emergency alert system that likely helped save a lot of lives.
"We woke up to an alarm at 10:51 from the National Weather Service," said Megan Appel, a Washington, Illinois resident.
Appel didn't take the first alert she received on her phone seriously but then came the second just a few minutes later. "At 10:58 and it said tornado warning take shelter now... We hid in our closet and away from any windows and it was the scariest experience I've ever had."
The alerts from the National Weather Service have a special tone. Wireless carriers and the federal government launched the service in Spring 2012. It's something meteorologists see as just another tool to warn the public of dangerous weather on the way.
"That storm was moving at 60 to 70 miles per hour the Washington tornado. Every second counts," said Fox 18 Meteorologist Kevin Phelps.
When a weather emergency has been issued, like a tornado warning, the message gets sent to cell towers in the affected area. If you're there, your smart phone will get the message.
"One of the things they do with that warnings is they do it based on your GPS location. So if you happened to not be in Washington, IL you would have not gotten that warning," added Phelps.
Those who were got the instant information and that gave them the opportunity to get to a safe place until the threat passed. But it's important to remember to take action quickly. "Make sure you head those cautions, don't waste any time and please, please don't go outdoors," said Phelps.
For Appel, her cell phone is one of the only things she has left after the tornado ripped through her town. But it may have saved her from losing much more.
"Just try to keep it positive and look at it and say you can only go up from here," she said.
Not all phones are capable of getting the alerts. The system also broadcasts amber alerts and other national emergencies, and you can also opt out if you want.