Fla. officials look for ways to improve storm warnings after devastating tornadoes

Monday, February 5th 2007, 6:24 am
By: News On 6

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Gov. Charlie Crist and the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Monday that the state should study ways to improve storm warnings in the aftermath of tornadoes that killed 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

The storms struck hours before dawn Friday, when few people were awake to hear weather alerts from television or radio. Many of the communities that were hit lacked any type of warning system, such as storm sirens.

``They need something to warn people,'' said Grace McWilliams, who lives in the area hit by the storms about 50 miles north of Orlando.

Several legislators suggested that sirens may not be the best solution, particularly in rural areas, where the number of sirens needed to reach just a few people might be too expensive.

The state's emergency management director, Craig Fugate, said sirens pose another problem: People who do hear them may not know what they mean.

``A siren merely notifies them that something has happened,'' Fugate said. ``The sirens would wake you up ... then you'd have to go to a second source for the information.''

Fugate said a good solution may be weather radios, which cost as little as $40 and can be set to turn on like an alarm-clock radio when a weather alert is issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

``What we would like to see is everybody get this,'' Fugate said. ``Even if we do sirens, it would probably be months'' before any are installed. ``A NOAA weather radio, you can get today.''

Several officials, including Crist, also are interested in ``reverse 911'' systems, which automatically place calls to all homes in a particular area when severe weather threatens.

But Crist warned that such systems may sometimes be too slow, noting that Sumter County, which was in the path of Friday's storms, had reverse 911.

``Unfortunately, these storms came in so rapidly, and so quickly, that even having the reverse 911 was not responsive,'' Crist said Monday on CNN.

FEMA Chief David Paulison told CNN the agency was working to develop ``a warning system that goes through a television set, through your radios and through your cell phones, and those type of devices.''

Sheila Hardcastle of East Peoria, Ill., believes some kind of warning might have saved her father, Clarence Clarkson, who died when the tornadoes hit his winter home in Lady Lake. But even with a warning, people still need to know where to take shelter.

``I think that the people need to be educated,'' Hardcastle said. ``There needs to be a place for them to go.''