Rita White experienced an EF-5 tornado in Athens, Ala., in 1974, when she was a seventh-grader. “It was very, very scary,” she said of her memories of that storm, which made the 2011 tornado even worse.
Athens did not change building codes following the May 2011 tornadoes. Limestone County itself has no building codes, even though housing development is happening in unincorporated parts of the county.
The steps Limestone County did take involved getting better at communications and warnings. It added five satellite phones because of troubles with cell phone communications after the tornado, and it built a small call center so volunteers after a storm won’t have to use the desks of the three-person emergency management staff.
The county also began registering people with storm shelters, to make sure rescue crews can find people if they are trapped during a future storm. It also got FEMA grants to pay for new $20,000 warning sirens.
Joplin upgraded all 33 of its warning sirens, after surveys found residents jaded by the sound of sirens being tested every week. The new sirens can be tested electronically and are sounded just once a month, to remind residents of how they sound.
When those sirens go off now, people head straight to shelter, said Jane Cage, chief operating officer at Heartland Technology Solutions and chairwoman of Joplin’s Citizens Advisory Recovery Team, a volunteer group formed after the tornado.
“We all act differently now. I would think there’s hardly anyone who, when the weather gets really bad, doesn’t get a little feeling in the pit of their stomach,” she said.
Even so, Cage said the community has to act practically when it comes to preparation.
“How far do you prepare for something, with the likelihood that you’ll never use it?”