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May 19, 2013

Without warning

Fast-moving tornado catches Limestone by surprise

Nine minutes passed Friday afternoon before emergency sirens warned Athens residents of a possible tornado on the ground near the intersection of U.S. 72 and 31.

While it is important not to warn residents unnecessarily — which can make them complacent and, ultimately, more vulnerable to injury during storms — many residents still rely on sirens, rather than emergency scanners, weather radios or cellphones, to alert them to impending danger. 

But what happens when the storm comes out of nowhere?

Mayor Ronnie Marks said Emergency 911 told him they reported at 2 p.m. a possible tornado on the ground at Steelcase, southwest of the city on Roy Long Road, and heading northeast toward Athens.

At 2:04 p.m., a few minutes after that report, a small funnel appeared to be descending from a cloud near 31 and 72.

By 2:06 p.m., a definite funnel was clearly visible in the area of Walmart and Zaxby’s off 72.

At 2:09 p.m., Limestone County Emergency Management sounded the tornado warning sirens, according to an official there.

Although the storm caused only minor damage in Athens — including a sign down at Zaxby’s, dumpsters and flags damaged at the French Farms shopping center and a leaking roof at Walmart — the delay in sounding the sirens worried some residents. In March 2012, a similar concern arose after a tornado struck Canebrake Subdivision in east Athens before sirens ever sounded.

Rita White, director of the Limestone County Emergency Management Agency in Athens, was working alone Friday afternoon when she heard the report on the scanner. She did not immediately sound the sirens because she did not know the veracity of the report.

“I called the Weather Service on the radio and asked what they were seeing on the radar,” White said. “I had them look at it because I did not know where the (initial) report came from. I did not know if it was from the Fire Department or 911.”

Specifically, she did not know if the report came from a trained storm spotter, such as a firefighter, or from a resident.

“We get a lot of reports from citizens who are not trained in what to look for,” White said.

The Weather Service told White they were seeing “broad rotation” in the area, so she sounded the sirens, she said.

If the report had come from a known trained spotter, she would have immediately activated the sirens, she said.

Four minutes before the initial report of a possible tornado on the ground near Steelcase, the Weather Service had issued an alert about possible severe weather today, she said.

On a typical severe-weather day, White said the Weather Service notifies the agency of possible severe weather or issues a watch, so EMA officials are expecting severe weather and a possible report of rotation or a tornado from spotters.

Friday’s storm was unusual in that the Weather Service did not predict the storm — it appeared swiftly and unexpectedly.

“This formed out of the blue near Steelcase and was moving pretty slow,” White said.

(About 20 mph, according to the Weather Service.)

Athens Fire Chief Toney Kirk said he was watching the radar when he received the call about the possible tornado on the ground but he saw nothing on the radar.

While the EMA does not have to wait for confirmation from the Weather Service, White said she did in this case due to the uncertainty about the training of the person making the initial report. She said the “possible tornado” turned out to be “broad rotation with small funnels dropping in and out.”

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