Lee sirens: Long, loud and, to some, annoying

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Residents within earshot of a tornado siren last week heard its frightening wail repeated dozens of times, even when the skies sometimes looked clear.
Although the exact number of siren blasts remains unknown, Lee County E911 Director Paul Harkins called it an unusually high frequency prompted by an unprecedented storm system.
The system, which included numerous cloud rotations and tornadoes, moved through the area from late Monday through Wednesday afternoon. Though funnel clouds never touched down in Lee County, their likelihood caused the National Weather Service to issue numerous warnings.
Each time the weather service issues a tornado warning for all or part of Lee County, Harkins’ team activates each of its 26 sirens. They sound for three to five minutes before shutting off. His staff then reactivates them as oftern as necessary until the warning period expires.
Typically, warning periods last a quarter hour or so and are seldom repeated, Harkins said. That means sirens will sound a few times before stopping completely.
But last week’s system triggered repeated warnings that, in some cases, lasted 30 to 45 minutes.
National Weather Service Meteorologist John Sirmon said the agency posted between two and three dozen warnings regionwide during the storm system, which he called unprecedented. In Lee County, eight warnings were issued on Wednesday alone.
The back-to-back blasts lasted so long and sounded so frequently that some residents called to complain, said Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson and City of Tupelo Communications Director Annabeth Wyatt.
“I certainly understand,” Harkins said. “We’re not issuing the tornado warnings. We’re just following our own policy.”
That policy requires emergency personnel to sound the sirens whenever the weather service issues a tornado warning, whenever trained storm spotters report a funnel cloud or whenever there are reports of widespread damage from severe weather – tornado or not.
As to why the sirens wailed even when the skies sometimes looked clear, Sirmon said, “We issue warnings based on interpretation of the radar data. There’s a lot of different things we look for.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.