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Tornado Sirens Proved Beneficial in Rural Communities

MARSHALL COUNTY, AL – On April 27, 2011, widespread damage was reported in Guntersville, AL, with trees down and some residents trapped in vehicles or homes. Trees and power lines blocked roadways as tornadoes ranging from EF-0 to EF-4 struck Marshall County. Five fatalities were recorded. According to Anita McBurnett, Marshall County’s Director of Emergency Management, the picture could have been grimmer in several rural communities had warning systems not been in place.

“It’s amazing. The track that it took is exactly where we’d put the new sirens up,” said McBurnett. “It was very fortunate that had been done and residents had gotten the warning that they needed. Three years in a row we have had presidential declarations. Through planning and preparation we had identified areas of high risk.”

Located in rural northeast Alabama, Marshall County has a population of approximately 90,013 residents. The county is 55 percent rural. A large portion of the rural area is at high risk, including the communities of Ruth, Hog Jaw, and Union Grove, which were in the path of the EF-4 tornado that touched down. It is estimated that these areas have approximately 15,000- 20,000 residents.

Forty tornado sirens are located throughout the cities and rural communities within the county. Ranging from a 2.5- to a 5-mile radius, the sirens are activated during periods of tornado warnings. The sirens have various tones followed by a pre-recorded message. Residents are instructed to seek immediate shelter at the nearest suitable location when the sirens are heard. Through the county’s Education and Outreach Program, residents can differentiate a tornado watch and warning and are aware of the appropriate action to take.

Over the past 3 years, four sirens were installed in the rural areas that were devastated by the EF-4 tornado. Construction began in December 2009 and was completed in August 2010. The Federal Emergency Management Agency contributed $79,347 of the $105,796 cost to install the warning systems through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), which is administered by the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. Following a major disaster declaration, the HMGP funds up to 75 percent of the eligible costs of a project that will reduce or eliminate damages from future natural hazard events.

Tested monthly, the tornado sirens are designed to be an early warning device primarily for persons who are outside, away from television or radio. According to McBurnett, the sirens are not frequently heard in homes during spring and summer months for multiple reasons such as the distance from the sirens, homes shut up with air conditioners running, and people asleep during storms with thunder, rain and wind. For this reason, the Marshall County Emergency Management officials highly recommend citizens keep National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radios in their homes, preferably in the bedroom. Residents are urged to contact the Marshall County Emergency Management Office to see if there is a siren near their home.

Heeding the tornado warning on April 27, 2011, residents took refuge in “storm pits” or designated areas in their homes. Although several community shelters exist within the county, none of them are located in rural areas.

“We are constantly looking at high-risk areas and where we need to put sirens,” said McBurnett. “With the economy as it is, it is hard to say that we can sponsor community shelters in our rural areas.”

Last updated June 3, 2020