Southern officials asses tornado warnings

February 9, 2008 6:06:14 PM PST
LAFAYETTE, Tenn. (AP) - After the deadliest wave of tornadoes to hit the South in more than two decades, dazed authorities and residents are wondering what could be done differently next time. There will be new interest in tornado sirens in places like Macon County, which has none and suffered 14 deaths, and consideration of other changes there and elsewhere across tornado-prone areas of the South. Officials cite strong storm awareness and disaster drills with helping Union University, in Jackson, Tenn., avoid loss of life as tornadoes roared through last week.

Sirens and long advance times in warnings that were repeatedly broadcast also helped prevent higher losses of life - the total as of Friday was 59 - from the powerful set of storms that included a ground-hugging tornado that roared across northern Tennessee with wind estimated at 125 top 150 mph. That twister was blamed for 24 for the deaths.

The most effective preparation for the next storm could be a healthy dose of fear triggered by lingering images of this month's disaster.

"A lot of it is just members of the public taking seriously that it can happen," said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who toured stricken areas. "You get a little more convinced each one you see."

The tornado's awesome destruction drew gawkers Saturday, complicating the recovery and salvaging efforts of residents and officials in rural Macon County.

"There's an awful lot of spectators, that's for sure," said Joe Jones, a contractor from nearby Franklin, Ky., who was waiting to fix the windows blown out of a Lafayette home. "People are running 10 to 15 mph around town, and they've got plates from all over."

Gawkers who interfere with cleanup and recovery efforts could be arrested, said Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt. "We're asking people to use common sense," he said.

Michael Chertoff, U.S. Homeland Security director, said the preparation and response was evident in Jackson, in western Tennessee, hit repeatedly by tornadoes in the past decade, including one that killed 10 people in the area in 2003.

"Part of what saved lives here was there are people who are experienced and who have thought about what to do when there is a tornado," Chertoff said Thursday after a tour.

Count Matt Burch of Gallatin, Tenn., as a believer.

"When they give out tornado warnings, if this doesn't put you in the mood to listen, I don't know what will," he said, looking at a relative's ruined house in Lafayette last week. "When they say take cover, you take cover. And you pray."

Debate over tornado sirens often follows destruction in communities that don't have them.

Florida officials, after tornadoes one year ago this month killed 21 people across central part of the state, considered sirens but questioned how effective they would be, especially with the cost. Instead, they preferred weather radios that residents could buy with tax breaks.

In rural Allen County, Ky., where four people died last week, Bobby Young, the county judge-executive, doubted sirens would have made a major difference because the storm was so fast, loud and powerful. Macon County Mayor Shelvy Linville felt the same way about the lack of sirens here.

"I don't really think it would have mattered," he said.

Sirens have come up after past tornadoes, he said, and likely will again as the county faces what he says is its worst disaster. In the past, the cost - around $20,000 each with installation - and questions about the practicality in a largely rural area with a spread-out population of about 23,000 and limited financial resources have shot down the subject.

After deadly tornadoes in the state in 2006, Bredesen said sirens could have a boy-who-cried-wolf effect in areas that frequently experience storm warnings - some areas of the South are dubbed "tornado alleys."

"When was the last time you heard a car alarm going off and you said 'Oh my God, there's someone breaking into a car?' " the governor said then.

After touring here last week, he said: "When you look at the intensity of the storm up in Macon County, for example, I don't know what you do to prepare for that unless you dig a hole in the backyard to get into. Those houses were just scraped down to their foundations."

But he said Union University was an example of the potential value of preparedness.

"Obviously, there's only so much you can do. We've always tried after these things to learn from them," he said. "These are very serious and very deadly, and you have to pay attention."

Forecasters had said conditions were ripe for strong storms, and there were long lead times in tornado warnings. Until television sets blinked off in many homes as power was knocked out by the advancing storms, a number of survivors said they had been monitoring the warnings.

Telia Sorrells, 24, was sitting on her couch watching TV weather reports in her home just before electricity went off and the tornado tore apart her house here Tuesday night. She said she didn't realize the tornado was upon her until she heard a loud noise and then looked up to see nothing but sky and felt blood running from her gashed head.

"It happened so fast," she said, adding she didn't know whether sirens would have caused her to react differently.

"It's human nature not to think it's going to hit you," Linville said. "I think we'll all take the next one more seriously."


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