Special Report: Towns without tornado sirens

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A tornado siren is a sound we all recognize, and heading into severe weather season, it becomes even more important that people can rely on them.
Tornado sirens can make the difference between surviving a storm and being caught in its destruction. Still, dozens of Iowa and Illinois towns don’t have them, and it raises questions about residents’ ability to be prepared.

In the place where seconds counted stood Joyce Lawrence`s house, in the path of a tornado headed straight for Fruitland, Iowa.

“I seen something nasty coming at us,” she said, looking back on that day in 2007.

There was just enough time to shut the garage doors behind her. That’s where she rode out the storm. Nearly 30 homes were destroyed in town that day, just a stop on the storms 16 mile path it plowed through Muscatine County.

“We had a survivor celebration a year later,” explained Lawrence.

There is a mix of old and new now in Fruitland, as many people rebuilt their homes. But one thing hasn’t changed- the siren outside the fire station. Jeff Carter is Emergency Manager for Muscatine County. He says Fruitland is one of two towns in the county that has a siren but that isn`t connected to the county system. That means in severe weather, it is up to the town to activate its own siren.

“Lot of times those real small towns don’t have anybody in town during the daytime,” Carter said. “So if you have a tornado, maybe you don’t have anybody to go down and blow the siren.”

Getting someone there can mean losing critical minutes in an emergency. Carter says Fruitland is in the process of upgrading its equipment, but isn’t ready to connect yet.

Of course sirens are only a small part of severe weather preparedness. The Muscatine County town of Stockton doesn`t even have one.

“It really depends on the community,” said Donna Dubberke, National Weather Service. “Its an investment they make and its expensive to maintain those systems.”

Dubberke says she recommends having more than one tool, like a weather radio or the ability to get text alerts on your cell phone.

It’s important to remember that sirens have their limitations. They are meant only as a warning for people who are outside.

Sometimes they don`t sound at all. Earlier this month, they were silent as a tornado swept through the Iowa town of Creston. Six people were hurt.

Dubberke says by being prepared, you should be able to get to shelter in less than three minutes.