Devastating tornado calls for look at early warning
By Senator Bill Ketron
There are few natural disasters that strike faster and with a more devastating force than a tornado like the one that hit Murfreesboro on Good Friday. I am constantly reminded of the impact this storm had on our community every time I open my front door, since my home lies only yards away from some of the worst devastation of the F-4 tornado that ripped a 24-mile path through our community.
Our county will be recovering from the damage for years. However, the worst effect of the storm is the loss of life we have suffered.
Although most Americans think of Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma as “Tornado Alley,” over the past decade, a noticeable increase has been seen in the Mid-South, including Tennessee. In fact, Tennessee has suffered 114 tornado-related deaths over the last ten years. This is more than any other state in the nation, with 17 percent of the national fatalities during this time period.
Only weeks before the storm, our State and Local Government Committee heard testimony regarding legislation to increase the number of warning sirens in Tennessee. Research done by two Memphis students shined a light on the huge inconsistencies of tornado sirens from one county to the next. The students came to promote legislation that requires the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) to coordinate with counties to add a certain number of civil defense sirens each year, starting with densely populated areas.
Anyone in Murfreesboro knows that our emergency response systems reacted swiftly and with great skill to the tornado on that fateful Friday. The response by local emergency personnel, our state troopers, roads officials and others has been phenomenal. However, as these students had reminded us only weeks ago, we do need to look at our early warning systems to see if improvements can be made that would help us save lives in Tennessee.
Besides the notification you see on television, there are three other primary sources of early warning systems used by county emergency agencies to warn citizens of a tornado. These are sirens, reverse 9-1-1 calls, and weather radios.
Each siren cost approximately $20,000, plus the cost of maintenance and enforcement by local fire departments. They generally blast the warning to citizens within a four-mile radius, depending on climate factors. This warning system can be very effective in densely populated areas.
The students’ research showed the range of sirens vary dramatically across the state, with one county having over 40 sirens to 28 counties that have no sirens. This could be due to the terrain, particularly in rural areas where it is not as feasible to operate a sound system. It is also a problem in areas of the state where hills or mountains can block the sound.
Many other communities have reverse 9-1-1 call systems that can place a telephone call to those in the path of a storm. There is little consistency, however, on the conditions and calling radius of when such calls should be made.
The third most prominent warning system is putting weather radios in homes. Many emergency experts maintain that this is the most effective warning system available. They can be purchased for under $30. However, this warning system does require responsibility on the part of the user to keep it ready to activate an alarm.
Public safety should be the first concern of government at all levels. The research brought to our attention and the increasing number of tornado deaths definitely warrant our legislature taking a very careful look at what we can do to help our counties improve our early warning systems. This includes looking at the full range of warning systems in our counties, the protocols used upon activation, the educational tools used to better prepare our citizens, and the full range of finances that might be available to help local officials upgrade their efforts.
We must be ready for the dangers of future tornadoes, given our state’s history over the last decade. Many lives are at stake.