By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – When tornado sirens blow around noon today for a regular test, some area residents will hear them for the first time this week.
Many Tupelo residents say they never heard outdoor sirens before Monday’s tornado or heard them minutes before the tornado hit near them.
Federal officials touring the city and Lee County this week credited all types of advance warnings for the fact that only one death was attributed to the powerful EF-3 tornado with windspeed of 150 mph.
“My girlfriend and I were standing under our carport after getting an alert on our phones that there was a tornado warning and heard nothing,” Joyner neighborhood resident Ben Gibbons posted online in a related discussion.
A National Weather Service meteorologist called Lee County officials at 2:15 p.m. Monday to warn of a storm that could produce a tornado and was headed for Tupelo. A tornado warning was issued at 2:32 p.m., and a tornado emergency was issued for the city at 2:44 p.m. when the first storm spotter saw the twister on the ground west of the city.
Two more NWS warnings were issued again less than 10 minutes later. Protocol calls for tornado sirens to activate as soon as warnings are issued. Sirens wail for three minutes, pause and usually activate again.
“I did not hear them in Oak Meadows and always have been able to hear them in the past,” said Bobby King of Belden.
Many people in the area credit only a single death and few life-threatening injuries to text message alerts, emails, phone calls and, of course, WTVA meteorologist Matt Laubhan’s now-famous plea for people to go to take cover in a “safe place.”
Many people say they heard tornado sirens at Crosstown and other city locations and in the county. However, grumblings continue to sound from people who wonder what happened to the sirens near them. The city has 22 tornado sirens, while nearly as many are located in other parts of the county.
Tupelo Water and Light director Johnny Timmons said earlier this week he heard the siren blow downtown before the tornado. However, he said more pressing issues, like supervising restoration of power to a few hundred homes in the city, took precedence right now over evaluating the sirens.
Lee County Emergency Management Agency director Lee Bowdry said Friday he couldn’t say all alarms sounded but said all were activated at the appropriate times. As city and county officials test the sirens this weekend, they’ll try to find explanations for any siren failure to activate.
However, weather and emergency management officials stress the potential for missing a severe weather warning as reason to have multiple sources of warnings.
“You should never rely on just one thing,” said Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn. “We encourage people to have a weather radio, text alerts and pick up the phone and call people they know to warn them.”
However, tornado sirens remain a staple in the early alert system.
“It’s kind of an antiquated technology,” said Michael Brown, Mississippi state climatologist. “But you can’t get rid of them since so many people rely on them,”
Sometimes the alarms sound but people can’t hear them from other districts. However, sometimes sirens don’t make a noise because of technological glitches.
Lee County and most other counties throughout the state test the sirens on the first Saturday of the month. Today, officials may learn answers to why so many didn’t hear alarms in Tupelo.
“The only way you find out if they work is by sounding them,” Brown said.