JEFFERSON CITY — Tornado sirens that wail and send people running for cover in basements and interior rooms may also malfunction or sometimes cannot be heard above pounding rain, leaving people who rely solely on them with little time to prepare as storms build.
Many survivors in Joplin described hearing the sirens despite roaring winds, though others say they could not hear the warning immediately before the storm barreled through the city or were not able to react soon enough to take cover. That's why emergency management officials and meteorologists say people should not rely solely on tornado sirens in bad storms, but rather should use several methods to get warnings, such as weather radios or staying tuned to local broadcast stations.
Missouri officials on Thursday increased the death toll from the Joplin tornado to 138 people after four more people were confirmed to have died in hospitals from injuries sustained during the storm. The tornado cut a path of destruction for several miles in Joplin, damaging or destroying more than 8,000 homes and apartments and more than 500 commercial properties.
In Joplin, Bill Lant was getting ready to order supper for his family at an IHOP when the tornado struck May 22. He took shelter in the restaurant's kitchen only after another person spotted debris spinning in the clouds. Lant, a first-year state lawmaker, said he did not hear sirens immediately before the tornado hit the restaurant.
"They had blown a siren probably 30 minutes prior to the tornado," Lant said. But because the skies merely looked overcast and some time had passed since the siren sounded, "we thought, well someone pushed the wrong button, there's nothing here to warrant an evacuation."
Shortly thereafter, he was trying to hold shut the restaurant's swinging kitchen door and crouching under a steel table as debris fell around him.
Another Joplin survivor said he heard an initial warning siren but did not see anything. By the time he heard the sirens again and tried to get to someplace safer, the tornado had already gone over him. Residents had about 17 minutes' warning before the storm struck, but Gov. Jay Nixon said "there was so much rain, so much wind around it, it was — I think — very difficult to hear even the sirens."
During a tornado outbreak that killed more than 300 people in the South earlier this year, many — but not all — of the residents reported hearing warning sirens. One woman told The Birmingham News that she never heard the tornado sirens and realized she was in the storm only when her pit bull and German shepherd flew by the window. A man in northeastern Alabama mistook a high-pitched whining as the warning sirens before looking outside and realizing it was the storm itself and bolted with his family into a closet.
Officials at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport said there was not enough time to make a public address warning before evacuating the operations tower ahead of a twister that hit the airport on Good Friday, blowing out glass, ripping a hole into the ceiling of a terminal and causing several minor injuries. An airport spokesman said a police watch commander spotted the tornado quickly enough for officers and other airport workers to begin moving people into safer areas.
Meteorologists and emergency management officials often tout the use of weather radios. Jim Kramper, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in St. Louis, said the weather radios can alert people to severe weather even while they are sleeping. He said some higher-end radios can be programmed to signal alarms for certain types of weather warnings.
In some places, residents also can sign up with local officials to receive a call with weather warnings. And a new system will allow authorities to send national messages from the president, information in life-threatening situations and alerts about missing children to people within range of one or more cellphone towers selected by officials. That system was to launch by the end of the year in New York City and Washington D.C.
Kramper said tornado sirens should be only a part of the warning systems people use.
"It's an outdoor system. They can't depend on it to warn them when they're inside," he said. "If they hear it inside, it's a luxury."
Outdoor sirens also cover limited territory and require power, which can be a problem if storms knock out electrical grids and the sirens do not have a backup source such as batteries.
Joplin lost two of its 29 storm sirens from the deadly tornado, which also took out a siren in the nearby town of Duquesne. Officials have ordered three replacement sirens and planned to have them installed this week. Meanwhile, Joplin is using two temporary sirens, and when another round of severe weather moved through southwest Missouri last week, police drove throughout the city warning people.
"It is impossible to saturate a community with sirens," said Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles.
Associated Press writers David A. Lieb in Jefferson City and Nomaan Merchant in Joplin contributed to this report.