State lacks siren warning systems

Deacon Sewall Price is seen through the front doors of what is left of Refuge Temple St. Stephen on Monday as he was looking through the rubble of the tornado-destroyed church.

Craig Robinson heard no warning siren Saturday when wind suddenly howled outside Refuge Temple St. Stephen, and he walked to the doorway to find himself staring into the ravenous maw of a tornado.

He heard no siren because Berkeley County has no siren warning system such as those in many Southern and Midwestern communities in tornado alley. In fact, Watchdog has learned that no South Carolina county is equipped with such warning systems for tornadoes.

The only way Robinson might have known that the church was about to be blown apart around him was if he had had a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tone alert weather radio. That's the technology South Carolina's emergency response systems rely on and urge the public to use.

The relatively inexpensive radios can be purchased at most electronics stores.

The tornado left Robinson unharmed on the floor of the destroyed church, and it did not kill or seriously injure anyone on its short path through the county.

Tom Smith got a warning. He's director of Berkeley County Emergency Preparedness Department, and his emergency vehicle is equipped with a weather radio. He heard that the northwest section of the county was in a tornado watch, which means that conditions are ripe for one.

So he drove toward that area in case he was needed. Minutes later he saw the black cloud that concealed the twister from his view, and then he heard radio traffic reporting that a twister had touched down. He hurried to the smashed church, checked for deaths and injuries, found none and followed the tornado's path to make sure no one was harmed.

Smith thinks certain parts of Berkeley County might benefit from some sort of siren warning system to alert residents to an imminent tornado, and is considering applying for grant money. Berkeley County is not in a tornado alley area where twisters are a regular danger, but they do happen on occasion, he said.

He also understands that siren warnings can be effective only if residents learn what the sirens mean and act on them. One of the county's rural fire stations has a siren and conducted an experiment to see what would happen if it sounded. "No one heard it," Smith said.

He believes Berkeley residents likely would be better off if they bought NOAA tone alert weather radios. The radios can alert them with a tornado warning if radar indicates tornado conditions are present or if one is sighted. .

Joe Farmer, spokesman for the state's Emergency Management Division, said full siren warning systems can be expensive to install and maintain, and they require extensive public education to make their warnings worthwhile. He said that after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 the state began going to NOAA tone alert weather radios as the best solution to public awareness, and made them available to all public schools in the state. Awareness of a looming tornado is especially critical in the Lowcountry and many low-lying areas because the lack of basements makes it harder to find safety.

Farmer said some places in the state do have siren warning systems, but they are not for tornadoes. Some provide flood warning, but the main place for such warning systems is counties with nuclear power stations.