Warning System for Deadly Tornadoes Not Foolproof

VIDEO: Steve Osunsami reports from the University of Alabama.
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Tornado alerts can give people just minutes to find shelter and officials said today that despite the nearly 300 deaths from a string of lethal twisters their warning systems worked well and prevented even more casualties.

"We have come a long way in the early warnings," said Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal whose state had at least 10 people killed by tornadoes. He said that when people hear the sirens or receive notice of an onrushing tornado they know to take cover.

"The technology the state posseses is much more sophisticated than in the past," Deal said.

Georgia's emergency management director Charlie English said, "We got good warnings from the National Weather Service... The reason there weren't more deaths is citizens are paying attention and taking cover."

Its not clear that the warning systems worked as well in Alabama where at least 180 people died, including more than 30 in Tuscaloosa. But the deaths may also be blamed on the size of the monster tornado which even flattened the city's Emergency Management Agency.

The Tuscaloosa EMA was relocated to a stadium today, officials said. In addition, fire stations and police precincts also suffered severe damage.

"We are also suffering from major infrastructural issues...the city's assets have taken a blow," said Mayor Walt Maddox.

In Jefferson County, Ala., officials said there were about 10 to 15 minutes between the alarm of sirens and the mile wide tornado moving into the town. At least 14 people died in Jefferson County.

The county's emergency management director, Johnny Burnette, said he first received a code red alerting him of the tornado warning by the National Weather Service.

"We activate the sirens and then we do an all-call to all departments," Burnette said. The "all-call" means alerting the fire department and police.

In Franklin County, Ala., where at least 18 people died, the deputy director of the county's emergency management agency feels confident about their warning system.

"When it's activated…I can walk out of our center and hear our sirens. I double check to see if they are going and they were," Dobbs said. "I have not had any reports that nobody heard them."

Dobbs said the area took a major hit and they're assessing if the warning system is still intact since the deadly storms destroyed parts of the county.

Different areas use different ways to alert residents.

"It depends on topography and population. In a rural county, it might not have sirens because nobody would hear them. In metro Atlanta, it might bounce off the top of a building. A lot of them use a reverse telephone system where residents receive phone calls, others have email," said Lisa Janak from Georgia's Emergency Management Agency.

In hard hit Catoosa County, Ga., Sheriff Phil Summers said they have sirens and they are used in drills regularly.

He said they had "excellent warning" in the county seat of Ringgold that was hit by a twister and he credited that warning and the drills to the fact that people in the city weren't killed.

The problem he said was in the unincorporated area outside of Ringgold involving "people coming off the highway" staying at hotels or eating at fast food restaurants. He said five people died there.

"There's no system that's fool proof. Sirens might not wake you up in the middle of night. An email alert system won't work if they're sleeping. Reverse telephone..not all counties have them," Janak said.

Experts said that one of the best ways to protect yourself is to buy a NOOA radio with a battery backup. The radios are set off by the National Weather Service when there's a tornado warning. People can find them at most retailers and they start at $20.

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