ATLANTA — Tornadoes are Georgia’s No. 1 weather-related killer, claiming 23 lives and causing $500 million in damage from 2008 to 2012. But just how much warning you receive before a tornado hits your home depends on where you live.
Last week’s deadly storms served notice that spring is the most favorable time of year for a strike, and history shows twister touchdowns are most likely in April.
A survey by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of more than 30 counties and cities found the systems used by governments to warn residents vary, with some providing no notice of an approaching storm.
Experts agree there isn’t one perfect plan for alerting those in the storm’s path, but say the key is having several systems in place to ensure there are multiple ways a resident can be notified. The challenge for county leaders is to balance limited resources, changing technology and the needs of the county’s population.
In Hall County, where some of the state’s deadliest tornadoes have hit, including a 1998 storm that killed 12, county emergency officials say it’s their duty to notify residents. Hall, with 185,000 residents, has one of the region’s most aggressive warning systems including 21 outdoor sirens, an automatic call-out system for landlines and a voluntary notification system, which sends messages to cell phones and mobile devices.
Just south in Gwinnett County, home to more than 800,000 people, there are no county-operated outdoor sirens, social media warnings or call-out systems. Eleven tornadoes have hit suburban Gwinnett County since 1950, including a 130 mph twister that slammed into Buford in November 2010. County emergency officials say they have a limited number of resources and are investing in lightening sensors to address Gwinnett’s biggest threat — severe thunderstorms.
“There’s isn’t a standard one-sized fits all for Georgia,” said Lisa Janak Newman, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. “It’s up to each individual community to determine the best system to serve residents.”
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.”
Notice too late
Typically, when people get warning that a tornado is looming they seek out confirmation through other sources, be it TV, the Internet or a family member, said Randall C. Duncan, who works with the International Association of Emergency Managers. That’s why it’s important government agencies work to notify residents in multiple ways, he said.
“If we can get an authoritative warning to the public through different mechanisms so that they hear the same warning from different sources, we can eliminate that confirmation behavior and get them to go to the action step,” said Duncan, who is also an emergency manager in Wichita, Kansas.
Many counties elect not to install sirens and instead favor new technology such as call-out systems as a means of notifying residents. But those also have flaws. A few counties, like Hall, use call-out system that sends warning calls to every registered landline in the county, but most call systems are voluntary and require residents sign up for email, text or phone alerts.
However, the service isn’t always widely used or known about. Fulton County with its 978,000 residents has about 307,750 numbers registered to its call out service. Cobb has 249,845 numbers registered in a county of about 707,000.
DeKalb County, where in 1998 a tornado hit Dunwoody causing an estimated $25 million in property damage, says when it tested the county’s voluntary call-out service, some people quit. The county of about 707,000 has about 240,000 numbers registered for the service, and says it plans to educate residents more about the benefits.
“With technology, we’re a lot more nimble and able to reach anyone and everyone who wants to be reached,” said DeKalb spokesman Burke Brennan. “There’s a new normal. I think the future is with the technology.”
On newer cell phones, wireless companies are now sending out emergency alerts that will be broadcast by nearby cell phone towers. Residents won’t have to rely on the county’s participation, and they won’t need to sign up or download an app. They will automatically receive emergency alerts depending on their location.
Emergency experts say residents also must assume some personal responsibility for watching the weather. Residents should have a plan for how to respond if a tornado strikes. Most counties recommend residents purchase a weather radio and keep an eye on news reports. Meteorologists now have the technology to track powerful storms days in advance and enhanced radar show the signature tunnels of wind that indicate a tornado.
But even the best technology isn’t 100 percent reliable. On March 14, 2008, a tornado hit downtown Atlanta, damaging several buildings including the Georgia Dome, where the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament was being held. What should have been a normal March night in the city turned nightmarish as windows flew out of downtown buildings and countless other structures, landmarks and homes were damaged. One person died and more than two dozen were injured.
“That wasn’t a storm that should have produced a tornado,” said Glenn Burns, chief meteorologist for Channel 2 Action News. “We really didn’t see any indication of a tornado in the cell.”
Joyce Jones and her husband are taking matters into their own hands. They are rebuilding their Gordon County home, which should be finished in May, in the same location. The house will be the same floor plan, with one major addition: A storm pit. The storm pit will be accessed through the living room, and there won’t be a need to cram into a closet the next time there is severe weather.