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Tornado warning systems rose to the challenge in Dallas-Fort Worth area

By Susan Schrock, McClatchy Newspapers –

ARLINGTON, Texas — As an EF-2 tornado tore its way along Arlington’s western edge Tuesday afternoon, warning sirens wailed for 23 minutes straight, warning residents in the 100-square-mile city to take cover.

“Because we knew we had confirmed tornadoes on the ground, we wanted them to go off for so long that there was no mistaking there was an immediate threat,” Emergency Management Administrator Irish Hancock said.

The sirens are typically set to sound for three or nine minutes depending on the severity of the emergency.

All 52 sirens worked, and city officials say that played a key role in the lack of deaths or serious injuries. At least 523 buildings, mostly homes, were damaged between U.S. 287 and Arkansas Lane.

Though a tornado in 2000 damaged about as many homes, Arlington’s ability to warn residents has improved dramatically since then.

The city has spent about $900,000 upgrading its sirens after some failed in 2000. It now plans to add at least one $30,000 siren every year to cover areas where trees or buildings could block the sound.

The sirens are supposed to be audible from about one mile away.

“Our 52 sirens cover every square inch of the city,” Hancock said.

But the city also relies on other technology during bad weather.

Arlington has about 100 traffic cameras installed along major thoroughfares and plans 30 more. Before public works crews arrive at a scene, the cameras can warn them about downed power lines and trees and debris blocking roadways.

Police and fire officials are also exploring the use of unmanned aircraft and video from surveillance cameras at natural gas well sites.

And Arlington is considering buying an alert system, like those in Dallas, Fort Worth and other cities, that would notify all residents or those in specific neighborhoods about weather threats or other emergencies through home phones, cellphones or e-mail.

Jo Blackmon was driving in southwest Arlington when she heard the sirens go off at 1:17 p.m.

“I knew I needed to get home,” Blackmon said.

Moments after she pulled into her garage and took shelter in the bathroom, the tornado hit her neighborhood near U.S. 287 and Sublett Road.

“It wasn’t like a train. It was like a jet engine. I was on the floor with my hands over my head,” Blackmon said. “If I was a minute or two later, who knows where I would be.”

Blackmon’s house, like others around it, had window and roof damage.

In 2000, many residents said they never heard the sirens. Eleven of 31 sirens failed, and the sirens covered only about 75 percent of the city.

In Fort Worth, officials say the city is also better-equipped to deal with tornadoes than in 2000, when a twister struck downtown. There had been talk of doing away with the sirens, but in 2003, the City Council approved $3 million to upgrade and expand the system.

Tuesday’s tornadoes largely missed Fort Worth, but there were close calls.

A tornado briefly touched down east of Spinks Airport on the far south side, and sirens sounded three times during the storms.

After checking the siren map, officials said 70 to 90 of the 153 sirens sounded.

“I think we did a pretty good job,” Fire Chief Rudy Jackson said. “The storms came up out of nowhere in a sense. We got the report of a tornado near Joshua in Johnson County, and we fired up the sirens then only in the southern part of the city as a tornado warning was issued for southern Tarrant County.”

Arlington did encounter opposition from some residents while trying to beef up its warning system. They didn’t want the blaring sirens, which are tested at 1 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month, so close to their homes.

“It’s funny how many people don’t want a siren in their back yard unless a tornado is coming,” Hancock said.

Now Arlington works to install sirens in city parks if possible.

Only one resident has complained to the city about not hearing a siren Tuesday, Hancock said. That complaint is under investigation.

Jackson said Fort Worth had complaints that residents couldn’t hear the sirens inside their homes. But he said the sirens weren’t designed for that.

Mayor Betsy Price said the city was fortunate to have been missed by the worst of the storms but praised the way the system operated.

“I think by all indications it worked well,” Price said. “I think we’re in much better shape than we were in 2000.”

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