EDITORIAL: Tornado sirens

Tupelo’s renewed discussion of installing additional tornado warning sirens in the off-season for twisters allows for discussion without an emotional rebound from a storm, but memory has a definite role, with advancing technology, in the city’s decisions about warning devices.
This is the memory: On April 5, 1936, on Palm Sunday night, what today would be classified as an F-5 tornado on the Fujita scale flattened much of the community, killing 233 people and injuring hundreds more. Scant advance warning was available. Most residents sought cover and refuge only when the storm already was slashing through the city from the southwest, decimating the main residential areas but sparing most of the business district.
A nationwide outpouring of tangible support flooded into Tupelo, and also Gainesville, Ga., where the same storm system killed 203 people on April 6. Tupelo, since that deadly event 73 years ago, has been a generous responder when natural disasters have hit other communities and states.
This is the technology: Tornado warning sirens are the most urgent, and final warning, in what has become a highly developed technology of severe weather forecasting. Sirens sound when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, or when an eyewitness reports a tornado over or approaching the city.
When correctly calibrated and extensively deployed, sirens give people a chance to take shelter even when a storm is imminent. It is essential, however, to place sirens where all residents have a reasonable chance of hearing them. The practical distance is about one mile, but some residents say wind and storm noise can cut down on the reach of the sirens’ sound.
Serious consideration of additional sirens and an expedited survey of where sirens exist, and where they are needed, should be undertaken and completed before final budget decisions are made for the 2010 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
At the same time, the City Council and Mayor Reed should take preliminary steps to ensure that areas proposed for annexation are included in a master plan for siren coverage.
The sirens are deemed especially important for warning after dark, when a tornado’s approach is unseen.
Residents in the unincorporated areas of Lee County don’t have the added warning of sirens, but the Lee County Board of Supervisors should consider a countywide system because of strong, dense residential neighborhood growth outside corporate limits.
The spread of sophisticated weather radars and their use by television stations, the National Weather Service and various Websites undeniably save lives with early alerts.
Sirens add an exclamation mark to the information people may be hearing or seeing.

NEMS Daily Journal