Tornado Alert! That’s what the woman on the phone said when I answered my landline at 3 am recently. The robocall said, “Take cover! A tornado is five minutes away from your location!” OK. I obeyed and stumbled into my shelter, a closet, where I keep pillows, water, protein bars, a flashlight, and if I remember to take it—my cellphone. I sat in the closet for 15 minutes, expecting either the roof to come off or some sort of “all-clear” signal. Nothing happened. I finally went back to bed, not really caring anymore because I was sleepy.
Tom Green County, like many other Texas counties, is trying to save money by replacing the old sirens with a phone alert system. The problem is most people have replaced their landlines with cellphones they set on vibrate at night or turn off altogether. But a siren ... a siren blaring for a full three minutes can wake the dead!
On May 18, San Angelo was hit by n EF-2 tornado with 135 mph wind speeds, a maximum width of 300 yards and an 8.5-mile-long path that destroyed a whole neighborhood. Residents whose homes were demolished are hopping mad, claiming they had no warning. A “Bring Back the Sirens” petition is circulating online to restore the old siren system. The petition quickly grew to the requisite 10,000 signatures it needed to prompt consideration by the county commission.
Sirens used to go off for three reasons: a tornado, hail larger than 1 inch in diameter, and sustained winds of 58 mph or more. Unlike the phone alarm system, the sirens also sounded a one-minute “all clear” signal. In my end of the county, there was a fourth reason for a siren warning: “grassfire.” Now, we have no knowledge of fires in the area unless we live with a volunteer fireman who has to scramble to meet the call.
The old siren was so loud, so shrill, so penetrating, so unnerving that it could not be ignored. A cellphone can easily be ignored. Complaints by the victims of the recent San Angelo tornado included remarks like: “I never got a warning!” “I didn’t wake up!” “My phone was in the other room, and I couldn’t hear it.” “My phone wasn’t on.” “I don’t answer calls in the middle of the night.”
About the robocall alert ... I get robocalls all day long. I hang up almost immediately if no one answers when I say, “Hello.” The only reason I didn’t hang up on “Miss Tornado Alert” is that it was 3 am and I was half asleep. I have no idea what my Caller ID said when the tornado call came through. Even if it said “Tornado Alert,” I wasn’t wearing my glasses.
The city of San Angelo is listening to the grumblings about the new alert system. The old siren system dates back to the 1950s. Replacement parts for broken sirens are hard to come by. To buy new sirens would cost $500,000–$700,000. Contrast that price tag with the phone alert system which costs practically nothing. How do taxpayers feel about that? Judging by the response to the “Bring Back the Sirens” petition, residents want the old system back as soon as possible.
Communities thrive on communication. We live together for safety. Knowing that a tornado or flood or fire threatens our neighborhood is vital to the welfare of the whole community. A warning system that works is crucial.
Tornado and wildfire season is in full swing. I’ve bought a NOAA weather radio and added battery-powered lamps to my “shelter” closet. Stay safe out there!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mary Jane McKinney is the founder and CEO of Grammardog.com LLC, a publisher of grammar exercises. She has used her English degree as a teacher, editor, reporter, and marketing executive. Readers who have questions or comments on this column are welcome to write to the author in care of The Canadian Record, PO Box 898, Canadian, TX 79014, or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.