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When tornadoes strike, warning sirens often stay silent

A Scripps News investigation finds many of the sirens that warn of tornado risks and other disasters are dangerously outdated.
When tornadoes strike, warning sirens often stay silent
Posted at 9:36 PM, May 24, 2023

Tommy Hengst and his wife, Pam, had just seconds to dash into their windowless utility room and throw a pillow over their heads before an EF-4 tornado began sucking the roof off their home in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.

"It could not have been more than a minute," said Hengst, recalling the night his home split apart around him in 170 mph winds. "You could feel the house shaking, you could feel the pressure and just the noise of the splintering wood and trees falling and breaking glass."

Families in Rolling Fork should have had 10 minutes to prepare for the twister's violent arrival March 24, but the town's warning sirens did not go off right away, if they activated at all.

Tommy and Pam Hengst lost their home of 29 years that night.

Thirteen others in Rolling Fork lost their lives.

Christopher Jennings knew three of the victims who lived in a mobile home park across the road from one of the town's two sirens.

"The warning across the street, it didn't ever go out," Jennings said. Instead, Jennings says the tornado's arrival was a "total surprise."

Had families heard the warning, "they would have tried to save themselves or get out of the way," he said.

Outdoor sirens have been used since the 1970s in towns across America to warn about an imminent danger from tornadoes or other severe weather.

They're designed to only alert people who are outside, but communities still rely on them to know when life-threatening weather is approaching, even with emergency messages now on cell phones, television and radio.

A Scripps News investigation has found many sirens across the U.S. are failing or are dangerously outdated, leaving millions of people vulnerable in disasters such as tornadoes, wildfires, floods and tsunamis.

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Scripps News has pieced together how in Rolling Fork, a system dating back to the 1980s, failed when the town needed it most.

Emergency procedures in Sharkey County, where Rolling Fork is located, call for activating the sirens when a tornado warning is issued, said the county's head dispatcher Angela Jenkins.

Records from the National Weather Service show the agency issued a tornado warning at 7:53 p.m., when sirens were to begin wailing. The tornado struck at 8:03. That should have provided the community with 10 minutes to seek substantial shelter.

But unlike places with advanced systems that sound sirens automatically during a tornado warning, in Sharkey County it's up to dispatchers to track the weather themselves online, Jenkins said.

"We have some older, seasoned dispatchers who are not computer-savvy," Jenkins said. "So they don't know how to take extra initiative to check for weather."

She showed us how they type codes into a control panel that resembles an old calculator to activate the sirens.

Jenkins said when the sheriff asked the lone dispatcher on duty the night of the storm to activate the system, the dispatcher was not confident she knew how to do it.

She called Jenkins for help, but Jenkins was at her second job at the local Dollar General store.

Jenkins said she eventually connected with the dispatcher and walked her through how to sound the alarms, but Scripps News has not been able to confirm that the sirens ever made a sound.

Jenkins said she personally heard at least one siren go off, but by then the tornado was already plowing through town.

"It was almost, like, within the next breath," Jenkins said.

Jenkins said it's possible that by the time the siren sounded, it was too late for a lot of people to take cover.

There are tens of thousands of outdoor warning sirens across the U.S., but there are no national standards that recommend how they should be used, maintained and tested.

Scripps News identified 24 incidents since 2019 when sirens failed during testing, or worse, when severe weather hit.

Officials in Boone County, Kentucky, said a malfunction prevented any of its storm sirens from sounding when a tornado was on the ground for nearly 3 miles in 2021.

The director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency in Ohio told WKBN-TV in 2021 that "no matter what we do — no matter how much money we put into it — the system just fails constantly on us."

In St. Clair, Michigan, the incoming emergency manager, Justin Westmiller, discovered half of the county's 52 sirens weren't working at all.

"A lot of disrepair, and the maintenance wasn't completed on them," Westmiller said. "They hadn't been checked in years. Batteries were out, things like that. We started to work on a way to correct that and ensure we could alert the public."

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Siren problems afflict even towns in "tornado alley."

Earlier this year, the town of Hennessey, Oklahoma, learned that none of their outdoor sirens worked anymore.

As in many places across the country, Hennessey's sirens are actually repurposed from the Cold War.

They were originally designed to warn of an enemy attack.

The electrical box on one of Hennessey's sirens still has an old "civil defense" decal on it.

The original copper wiring is no longer compatible with the modern phone lines necessary to activate the sirens, said Bert Gritz, a member of the Hennessey Board of Trustees.

"It was the activation system that failed," he said.

Even with emergency alerts on phones, social media, television and radio, Gritz said sirens are still the most reliable public warning system in use today.

Hennessey will replace all of its sirens and install a new system that will self-test every day.

It's a pricey upgrade: $171,000.

"That's a pretty good chunk of money. It really is," Gritz said. "I just feel like we need to be aware. It breaks my heart to turn on national TV and see where these areas have been devastated by tornadoes, and lives lost."

Getting new sirens can take months.

A leading manufacturer said there are supply chain delays, especially for microchips.

Hennessey's new system won't be ready for another year, which would have left the town unprotected during this year's peak tornado season.

The town's electrician came up with a temporary solution: attaching a switch to the guts of the half-century old sirens that bypasses the incompatible copper wires.

In Mississippi, a group of siren experts donated their time to visit Rolling Fork on May 10 to examine the warning system there.

They discovered the siren closest to the mobile home park had not been working when the twister hit because of a battery problem, said Cruz Newberry, president of Table Rock Alerting Systems.

They it fixed it, installed a new siren donated by Sentry Siren on the other side of town and repaired a problem with the activation keypad at the dispatch center, Newberrry said.

"It's unfortunate that the system didn't work that evening," he said.

Sharkey County also is now planning to install technology that will automatically sound the alarms as soon as the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, Jenkins said.

"The weight of the world was on my shoulder," Jenkins said. "I feel like I let my community down.

"So I can guarantee you we're taking all the extra measures to make sure that we learn from this experience. If we could have done anything to save everybody, I promise you we would have saved everybody."

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