National News

March 31, 2013

Tornado warnings vary by county


Hit without warning

Joyce Jones had a simple warning sign — she saw a neighbor look up at the sky before running into his home.

Her instinct told her to go the inner most place of the house — the hallway closet. And that’s what saved her life when a tornado hit her Gordon County house Jan. 28. In a matter of seconds, 160 mph winds of a tornado moved her home about 80 feet from the concrete foundation. Jones survived without a scratch.

“I really believe the closet and the good Lord saved my life,” Jones said.

Gordon, like many other counties, does not have sirens. The county does have a voluntary call-out system, but Jones was not signed up because she didn’t know about it. She is signed up now.

Many residents consider sirens a staple of tornado warning, but many emergency experts say sirens are expensive, outdated and overvalued. They’re designed to warn residents who are outdoors and not designed to be the primary signal a tornado is on the way.

Installing 113 sirens throughout Gwinnett county would cost $2.5 million, said Greg Swanson, director for the Gwinnett County Office of Emergency Management. Maintenance would be about $50,000 a year. Gwinnett applied — but did not receive — a grant to install sirens, but Swanson said the county will continue to explore warning systems.

Gwinnett, like many counties, has limited emergency funding and the infrequency of tornadoes in the county leaves them a lower priority. In Gwinnett, the higher priority weather safety threat is severe thunderstorms. The county is spending $20,000 on lightening sensors so emergency responders can be ready in case of a strike.

“Tornadoes are very devastating, but in Gwinnett their frequency is very low,” he said. “When we look at committing our resources — whether staff or planning — we try to focus on hazards that are most likely to affect the area.”

But east Cobb resident Victoria Curran says sirens are undervalued. Curran is no stranger to tornadoes, having grown up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where in 2011 deadly tornados hit killing about 250 people across the state. She created a makeshift storm shelter under the basement stairs and uses a weather radio on stormy nights.

But during the day the busy mom of two says she isn’t glued to her phone or computer, and if the TV is on, it is showing pre-recorded kids shows. She relies on Cobb’s 74 sirens to tell her when to turn on the news to find out if she should take cover.

“I count on the fact that I can hear the siren in my house. That’s what tells me to turn on TV,” she said. “There is nothing else that alerts you without you having to seek out the information.”

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