Sunday, February 10, 2008

LAFAYETTE, Tenn. (AP) — After the deadliest wave of tornadoes to hit the South in more than two decades, dazed authorities and residents are wondering what could be done differently next time.

There will be new interest in tornado sirens in places like Macon County, which has none and suffered 14 deaths, and consideration of other changes there and elsewhere across tornado-prone areas of the South. Officials cite strong storm awareness and disaster drills with helping Union University, in Jackson, Tenn., avoid loss of life as tornadoes roared through last week.

Sirens and long advance times in warnings that were repeatedly broadcast also helped prevent higher losses of life — the total as of Friday was 59 — from the powerful set of storms that included a ground-hugging tornado that roared across northern Tennessee with winds estimated at 125 to 150 mph. That twister was blamed for 24 deaths.

The most effective preparation for the next storm could be a healthy dose of fear triggered by lingering images of this month’s disaster.

“A lot of it is just members of the public taking seriously that it can happen,” said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who toured stricken areas. “You get a little more convinced each one you see.”

The tornado’s awesome destruction drew gawkers yesterday, complicating the recovery and salvage efforts of residents and officials in rural Macon County.

“There’s an awful lot of spectators, that’s for sure,” said Joe Jones, a contractor from nearby Franklin, Ky., who was waiting to fix the windows blown out of a Lafayette home. “People are running 10 to 15 mph around town, and they’ve got plates from all over.”

Gawkers who interfere with cleanup and recovery efforts could be arrested, state officials said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the preparation and response was evident in Jackson, in western Tennessee, hit repeatedly by tornadoes in the past decade, including one that killed 10 persons in the area in 2003.

“Part of what saved lives here was there are people who are experienced and who have thought about what to do when there is a tornado,” Mr. Chertoff said Thursday.

Count Matt Burch of Gallatin, Tenn., as a believer.

“When they give out tornado warnings, if this doesn’t put you in the mood to listen, I don’t know what will,” he said, looking at a relative’s ruined house in Lafayette last week. “When they say take cover, you take cover. And you pray.”

Debate over tornado sirens often follows destruction in communities that don’t have them.

Florida officials, after tornadoes one year ago this month killed 21 persons across the central part of the state, considered sirens but questioned how effective they would be, especially with the cost. Instead, they preferred weather radios that residents could buy with tax breaks.

In Allen County, Ky., where four persons died last week, Bobby Young, the county judge-executive, doubted sirens would have made a major difference because the storm was so fast, loud and powerful. Macon County Mayor Shelvy Linville thought the same way about the lack of sirens here.

“I don’t really think it would have mattered,” he said.

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