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Published: Tuesday, 6/8/2010

Tornadoes' epicenter out of range for sirens; Fulton County residents scrambled for shelter

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE PROJECTS EDITOR

DELTA, Ohio - Nick Grabowski heard the wind begin to howl outside his Swancreek Township home Saturday night.

Soon, a chorus of glass breaking, tree limbs crashing into the walls, and a section of the roof ripping off his house filled his ears as he went to take shelter in the bathroom.

The one sound Mr. Grabowski never heard as an EF2 tornado touched down near his Fulton County home was a warning siren. That's because the area that is epicenter of the county's tornado damage has no siren for him or his neighbors to hear.

Mr. Grabowski lives along Fulton County Road 7, between County Roads A and B, which is in the southeastern tip of Fulton County and about 3 miles from the county's nearest tornado sirens.

While Fulton officials say the countywide warning system was activated at 9:59 p.m. on Saturday and sounded for three minutes, they also believe Mr. Grabowski and his neighbors live too far away from the two closest sirens to be able to hear them.

The closest siren across the county line is in Henry County's Liberty Center, an antiquated, locally operated siren that was not activated during Saturday night's storm.

As reports continue to build of residents barely escaping injury or death by diving into crawl spaces and bathrooms just before the tornado ripped through town, it's become clear that residents who weren't watching network television wouldn't have known a twister was coming until it was almost too late.

"I really think a siren would help," Mr. Grabowski said. "It was over so fast. The house was rattling and the windows were imploding, and in five seconds it was over."

Sierra and two other people took cover in a first-floor bathroom as two floors of the three-story house caved in on them. Their only protection was a cabinet built by a family member. Sierra and two other people took cover in a first-floor bathroom as two floors of the three-story house caved in on them. Their only protection was a cabinet built by a family member.
JETTA FRASER Enlarge

According to the National Weather Service in Indiana, an EF2 tornado was sighted on State Rt. 109, just north of County Road A, at 10:38 p.m. It had a path of 7.5 miles, was half a mile wide at its widest point, and traveled northeast with maximum wind speeds of 135 mph.

The two southernmost sirens in Swancreek were among the county's 37 that were activated around 10 p.m., but Fulton County Emergency Management Agency Director Justin Thompson said residents on the affected portion of Fulton County Road 7 were out of earshot.

"Sirens can only cover so much ground," Mr. Thompson said. "We may need to advertise more for people who live out there to purchase weather radios."

Mr. Thompson said the county was aware before Saturday night's disaster that residents in that portion of Swancreek couldn't hear the sirens. He said that although it is up to the towns within the county to purchase and decide where the sirens should be placed, they typically are stationed in each community's more populated areas.

"It's a topic that's going to come up more in the aftermath action plan," Mr. Thompson said.

Ron Holdeman, a Swancreek trustee, said he didn't know how many people live in the area that was most affected by the tornado. He said the township has as many as five sirens and they have been in place for more than five years.

"They're supposed to cover most of the township," he said. "We might need to put another one out there that way."

A damage assessment conducted by the Fulton County emergency management agency showed that 68 homes were damaged by the tornado, with about half destroyed or sustaining major damage.

Debby Knapp stood on the lawn of a relative's damaged home on Fulton County Road 7, angrily complaining about the lack of sirens in the area. Ms. Knapp and her immediate family live about a mile away in Liberty Center and testified that no warning siren was heard as the twister approached. "You need to have time to get your kids somewhere safe," she said.

Randy McClure, the fire chief in Liberty-Washington Township that includes Liberty Center, said there was no reason to sound the local siren.

The siren, which he said is 60 to 70 years old and sits atop an elevator in the center of town, is triggered when he or another fire department "spotter" judges the weather conditions to be dangerous and so orders the person stationed on top of the elevator.

"Every time there's a tornado warning, which is quite often, we don't go sound the siren," Chief McClure said. "We sound the siren when it turns [dangerous] outside. We had spotters out everywhere … and the weather we had didn't warrant the siren."

Chief McClure said it was highly unlikely most of the residents he serves would have heard the siren had it sounded, let alone those whose homes were damaged on Fulton County Road 7.

"With our siren situation, every time we test it we just hope it makes it through the test," Chief McClure said.

Eileen Neyrinck was asleep as the tornado approached. It toppled the barn behind her home at 1380 Fulton County Road 7 and awoke her when her window exploded.

She said she would have appreciated a siren sounding to wake her and as a signal to her to take cover, but shrugged and smiled.

"Life's not perfect," she said.

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6559.



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