The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

August 5, 2013

Warning systems need to be examined

Commentary By Adam Smith
adam@athensnews-courier.com

— “Rotation near (unintelligible) Road,” the police and fire scanner sputtered out at 2 p.m. on Friday.

I had my head buried in my work at the time, but briefly glanced outside and saw nothing but gray skies and drizzle.

There was a back-and-forth conversation between two reporters, and laughter, so I assumed no one else heard it.

“Rotating funnel cloud near Steelcase,” the scanner said again.

“What did that say?” I asked out loud.

A couple of other people heard it the second time.

“Tornado on the ground at Steelcase,” was the third announcement, just a few second later. Everybody heard it then and subsequently sprang into action.

For a moment, I thought whoever was calling in these reports must have been delusional. After all, I watch the weather every morning, and heard nothing about the possibility of severe weather.

However, the reports kept coming in. I ran out front of The News Courier’s building and spotted a wall cloud moving north in the direction of U.S. 31.

“It looks really bad over there,” was my proclamation to the front office staff. Despite having sat through a storm spotter training class a couple of years ago, it was all I could think of to say.

I came back in and ran upstairs to see what the scanner was saying. It was then I heard Steve Cuckler, one of our advertising reps, yell “TORNADO!” Then I ran back downstairs again and saw the rotating funnel cloud moving north. It was then that we heard our first warning siren.

Once I felt the coast was clear, so to speak, I sent my staff members out to look for damage photos. Our blood was pumping, and I’m sure the same goes for anyone else who was aware of the storm.

Tornadoes aren’t uncommon in North Alabama, especially this time of year. After all, The Weather Channel did just name Huntsville and its 75-mile radius as the No. 1 tornado city in the country.

But this storm truly snuck up on us. We weren’t expecting it. Even worse, there were no warnings. The thought of watching an EF5 following U.S. 31 — instead of the smaller storm I witnessed Friday — is truly terrifying.

We were very, very lucky indeed.

For the past four weeks, The News Courier has featured Sunday feature articles about disaster preparedness. Last Sunday’s feature was about how we receive our warnings and if the current warning systems are enough.

It’s clear they are not.

The warning sirens didn’t sound until several minutes after the first sighting. It takes only seconds to take a life.

And even though I’m signed up to receive weather warnings on my phone from two Huntsville-area TV stations, I only received one. I received that warning several minutes after a formal tornado warning was finally issued for the county at 2:09 p.m.

Even stranger, we were never under a tornado watch. Anyone who remembers the hot, sticky, stagnant air quality of April 27, 2011, should by now realize those conditions present a climate for severe weather.

So, why was no tornado watch issued?

We at the newspaper are fortunate because we have a police and fire scanner, which allows us to rely on real-time eyewitness reports. Most Limestone County residents don’t have that luxury.

Our close brush with disaster should serve as the impetus for serious and frank discussions about what works and what doesn’t. We’re a little more than two years removed from the April 27, 2011, outbreak, and I’m not sure how much has really changed.

City and county leaders have put a lot of time and effort into the response side of a disaster, but how much thought have they put into the warning side?

It’s a legitimate question, and one that should be answered soon — as if our very lives depended on it.

— Managing editor Adam Smith can be reached at adam@athensnews-courier.com.