By Adam Smith
Officials with the Limestone County Emergency Management Agency said Monday that only four minutes passed between the first report of a surprise tornado in Athens Friday and when warning sirens were activated.
The agency first received the call about a possible tornado on the ground near Steelcase at about 2 p.m. EMA communications officer Daphne Ellison said the report had to be verified with the National Weather Service in Huntsville before warning sirens could be sounded.
The sirens were activated at 2:04 p.m. The NWS placed Limestone County under a tornado warning at 2:09 p.m. Another warning was issued at 2:42 p.m.
Ellison said the agency has received several calls asking why it took so long to activate the sirens, even though the rotating funnel cloud was clearly visible over U.S. 72 and U.S. 31.
“Most of the time a warning has to be issued before sirens can be sounded,” Ellison said, adding the exception would be if there are reports of damage or credible eyewitness reports. “If we don’t know who’s called (in the tornado report), we have to contact the National Weather Service.”
The weather service verified that an EF0 touched down in Athens, and a second EF0 touched down near Elkmont. Damage from the storms was limited primarily to trees, roofs and signs. One person reportedly sustained minor injuries at the Athens Walmart while trying to run to a place of safety.
“People don’t realize that a tornado can form without any notice,” Ellison said. “We saw that with the storm that hit Canebrake (on March 2, 2012). We didn’t have a thunderstorm in the area.”
Christina Crowe, a meteorologist with the NWS in Huntsville, said a few thunderstorms were expected across the Tennessee Valley on Friday, but there was not a severe weather threat. She added the service updated its hazardous weather outlook at 5:10 a.m. Friday morning to reflect the possibility of strong-to-severe thunderstorms, wind gusts, quarter-sized hail and a brief tornado.
Crowe said a tornado watch was not issued for the area because watches are generally issued when there is a greater threat for tornadoes to occur within a certain area.
“The two EF0’s were produced by one storm, and there was no widespread threat,” she said. “This was a weaker system that had just enough shear to produce two little tornadoes. There was not much thunder, so it was just a different environment.”