tornado cloud in arkansas

At 5 pm Feb. 5th, this tornado touched down Atkins, Arkansas, killing four people
Photo: Mike Avery, for The Courier

Fifty-five people died in storms across the mid-South Tuesday, as 91 tornados gouged parts of Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. A thousand homes were destroyed in Tennessee alone, according to Governor Phil Bresden.

There’s no protection for a building in the path of a tornado, but what about people? Fourteen died in Macon County, Tennessee, an hour northeast of Nashville on the Kentucky line. There are no emergency sirens here. “You never think this will happen at home and you are never prepared,” said Keith Scruggs, chief of Macon County’s emergency management office. “It’s a wake-up call.” The National Weather Service had seen deadly conditions brewing six days ahead of the actual storms; on Tuesday the office issued more than 1000 tornado warnings across 11 states.

USA Today reported that in many rural communities “warning systems have significant gaps.” The paper mentioned Aldridge Grove, Alabama, located beyond the range of sirens, where “a couple and their teen son” were killed Wednesday. “In Allen County, KY, where four people died, there are no sirens…. In Gassville, Ark., the emergency siren went off six minutes before the tornado hit — and destroyed the siren.”

arkansas woman after storm

Jerri Vanscoy returns to her home in Gassville, Arkansas, on Wednesday
Photo: Associated Press

When they work — and when residents take heed — sirens definitely can save lives. Elaina Peyton of Moulton, Alabama told the New York Times, “I’ve lived in Champaign, Ill., and in southern Mississippi, and neither place had a decent early warning system like we do here in Moulton. We heard the sirens last night at about 2 a.m., and so our daughter knew to come downstairs and we knew that something was happening.”

Reporter Cara Restelli, with KY3 news (Springfield, MO), investigated storm warning systems last fall in southwestern Missouri. The region has been hit twice by tornadoes in the past five years and lies just north of the Arkansas counties where 13 people died Tuesday. Mapping the sirens in a 10-county area, Restelli found, “They can alert 350,000 residents that a tornado could be on the way but leave almost 170,000 in silence. That’s almost a third of the population who couldn’t hear a siren.”

Harold Brooks, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, told USA Today bluntly, “Wealthier communities tend to have (sirens) and poorer communities tend not to have them.”

According to Restelli, sirens cost about $20,000 apiece, with the added expense of regular maintenance. Franklin, Kansas, bought a $18,000 system two years ago; one third of the cost was handled by a rural development grant. Yet another source priced emergency sirens at $25,000.

But any of these price tags is high for a small community. David Freeman, emergency management director of Pope County, Arkansas, which was hit in Tuesday’s storms, said his office “received six used sirens for free last spring when Entergy Arkansas upgraded the warning system at a local nuclear plant. ‘I’ve talked to a lot of residents who credit those sirens for saving lives.’”

lafayette Tennessee storm

Volunteer fireman Adrian DeBruin and Carrie DeBruin amid the wreckage in Lafayette, TN
Photo: Associated Press

A storm siren can usually alert people only within a two-mile radius. Mark Grant, with the public safety office of Dyersburg, Tennessee (in “tornado alley” but spared this week), stresses that sirens are “not made to be heard inside. They’re so people outside can find shelter.”

So what’s the best emergency warning system for sparsely populated communities that can’t afford clusters of $20,000 alarms? A NOAA weather radio in the bedroom is one fairly cheap way to stay alert. Weather radios cost $30 to $70 and sound an alarm when severe weather moves in. Judd Wright, emergency coordinator of Sumter County, Florida, calls them “much more effective than a siren system. In the middle of the night, you may not hear a siren.” (According to USA Today, Allen County, Kentucky, where four people died in Tuesday’s storms, offers residents “discounts on weather radios.”)

The newest idea in emergency communications — one that could work especially well in rural communities — is to use text-messaging, computers and cell phone technology. Lake County, Florida, which has no sirens, hopes to implement a text warning system; it’s waiting for federal funds to follow through. Residents would still need to put themselves on a call list. For more on Lake County’s plans, see this story.

The text-messaging system for emergency alerts seems to be taking hold first on campuses. After the Virginia Tech shootings last April, colleges and universities are taking greater precautions. Wilson College, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, is one. It’s added a text-messaging alert system to other security measures.

“Ninety-five percent of college students today use text messaging,” said Cheryl Sleboda, a vice president of the college. The new system, tested in October, is now in operation. The University of Tampa and University of Florida also have text-messaging alarm programs in place.

map of storms Feb. 5, 208

Map of Tuesday’s storms
(91 tornadoes in red)
Source: NOAA

Apparently, there was no text-messaging system to notify students at Union University in Western Tennessee of Tuesday’s tornado, though they’d heard several warnings.

“It’s tornado alley here,” said Danny Song , a residence advisor at the university. “I figured it’s just like the others and this one will just pass by and nothing will happen. They kept giving us warnings on TV — this one’s pretty bad, you’ve got to take cover and get to safety now. We didn’t listen.”

Fifty-one Union University students were injured but no one died.

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