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As a monstrous tornado neared Rolling Fork, residents say sirens were silent

The deadly storm in Mississippi has raised questions about warning systems in poor, rural communities

Lifelong resident Jeffrey Russell has heard tornado warning sirens his whole life, but not the night a powerful tornado ravaged Rolling Fork, Mississippi. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)
13 min

ROLLING FORK, Miss. — Larry Jeffries has lived on Pecan Street for 45 years and during that time has grown accustomed to the blare of the warning siren that sits just beyond his backyard.

But on Friday night, as a powerful tornado barreled toward the small city of Rolling Fork, Jeffries and other nearby residents said they didn’t hear the siren make a peep.

“I’m not sure it would have saved lives, the tornado came in so quickly,” he said. “But it would have gotten people’s attention. They would have known to get inside and try to get somewhere safe.”

In the days after an EF4 tornado killed at least a dozen people here, attention has turned to weather warning systems and whether the city’s functioned properly and was sufficient the night of the storm. The city’s mayor told The Washington Post he did not hear Rolling Fork’s two sirens. Over a dozen residents interviewed in different parts of the community said they did not hear any sirens. A storm chaser described driving through the city moments before the tornado, desperately alerting people.

The National Weather Service warned that a storm capable of producing tornadoes was headed toward the area 11 minutes before the twister struck Rolling Fork. That is within the standard range for the quickly developing systems, and would have automatically triggered alerts to local television stations and on cellphones.

But the siren system is still considered crucial, especially in more rural, low-income communities, where not everyone has a reliable cellphone or signal. In Rolling Fork, the Sharkey County Sheriff’s Office operates the two alarms. A dispatch supervisor told The Post that the individual in charge of sounding the sirens Friday evening had trouble getting them working.

Asked if the alarms went off, Sheriff Lindsey David Adams Jr. told a Post reporter, “I can’t answer that. I believe they did.” When pressed further, he said: “Yes, yes, they went off.”

The potential issues with the siren system underscore what some in Rolling Fork see as a larger problem — a lack of investment in emergency preparedness in a predominantly poor, mostly Black corner of the state. Carolyn Cole-Tillis, chief deputy of the county sheriff’s office, said her agency has raised the need for better storm prep with emergency management officials before, but that lack of funding has been a barrier.

Angela Jenkins, the dispatch supervisor, said the on-duty officer was eventually able to activate at least one siren, which she heard moments before the tornado hit. Other residents living near the sirens said they did not hear anything. At least one complained that the sirens were hard to hear to begin with. Some received cellphone notifications. Others said their phones were silent.

Across Rolling Fork, many said the only alert they received was the sound of the approaching wind. It was more than a whisper through the leaves. It sounded like a roar.

A dated system

Outdoor siren systems were not designed for tornado warnings. They were created for alerting citizens of enemy attacks during the height of the Cold War. Over time, the systems took on another purpose: alerting people to natural disasters. Use of outdoor sirens for tornado warnings began as early as 1970, but many small towns and rural areas only have a handful. Some — including communities near Rolling Fork — have none at all.

Sirens are an inherently flawed system. People may or may not hear them, depending on how close they are to one the moment a storm approaches. Sirens can also be expensive and cumbersome to maintain, typically relying on funding and resources from already cash-strapped local governments.

“People are relying on a system that was never meant to be the first or primary alert system,” said Joe Ripberger, deputy director of the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis.

Television and phone notifications can quickly alert thousands, but Ripberger, who helps lead the Extreme Weather and Society Survey, said surveys show sirens still rank high on how people prefer to be warned. Emergency management experts recommend that people in tornado-prone areas be within reach of at least two means of notification, so that if one alert doesn’t arrive in time, another does.

“We know for sure that there is a population out there that relies pretty heavily on sirens to get information about warnings,” Ripberger said. “If they don’t go off for whatever reason, for those people who are reliant on them, I think it is problematic.”

In nighttime situations like in Rolling Fork, a siren could be especially critical, said Emily Laidlaw, a statistician based in Colorado who has looked into the issues surrounding outdoor sirens.

“Anecdotally, many people in past tornado emergencies have credited sirens as being the method that woke their family up and allowed them to effectively shelter,” Laidlaw said.

Nonetheless, there are cheaper and more effective ways to share pressing information than sirens, Melissa Sizemore, an emergency management officer in Jefferson County, Ala., said. While sirens can cost upward of $35,000 for installation, in addition to the annual upkeep and operational costs, weather radios could reach more people at a fraction of the price. The radios automatically turn on to relay an alert and can be operated by battery.

In Indiana, all new mobile homes are required to have a weather radio installed. The state passed “C.J.’s Law” in honor of a 2-year-old killed after a tornado tore through his mobile home community. The 2005 storm killed 25 people, most of whom lived in trailers and were caught off guard in the middle of the night.

Sizemore estimates that giving all the estimated 3,660 people in Sharkey County, which includes the city of Rolling Fork, a weather radio would cost less than $50,000.

Across the country, there is a patchwork of laws and regulations guiding how sirens are managed. Most rely on local or county funding for operation, meaning resources vary significantly by community. Some municipalities have begun phasing out of using sirens, considering them antiquated and too expensive. But despite the challenges, Laidlaw said that sirens are unlikely to entirely ever go away.

“They are an important tool for warning the community of events like tornadoes,” she said. “Especially — and importantly — when used with other warning tools.”

‘God saved our lives’

Weather forecasters warned throughout the day Friday that a potentially strong storm system was expected to hit the state. But specific information on tornadoes and storm paths routinely comes minutes in advance. Twisters form rapidly, giving even the best meteorologists little time to alert the public.

At 7:53 p.m. local time that evening, the National Weather Service in Jackson warned that a storm capable or producing tornadoes was headed to the area. Six minutes later, the agency confirmed a “large and destructive tornado” was on the ground and headed toward Rolling Fork. At 8:04 p.m., the Weather Service declared a “tornado emergency,” the service’s most dire alert, for Rolling Fork. The initial warning would have generated an automatic cellphone alert.

The warnings also gave the sheriff’s office 11 minutes to begin sounding Rolling Fork’s sirens. The agency’s headquarters is located in the city, the county seat.

Storm chaser Zach Hall was following the storm that evening. As he entered Rolling Fork, he said he did not hear any sirens, which surprised him given the intensity of the storm. People were out and about like on a normal Friday night, he recalled.

“This was the strongest tornado that I’ve ever observed in person,” said Hall, who has been chasing storms for six years. “I’ve never heard anything like it. It had a growl-like roar, and it was just terrifying.”

On his live stream from the city, Hall can be heard honking his horn, trying to warn people of what was coming.

“These people have got no freaking idea,” he said as drove through the city.

At Chuck’s Dairy Bar, Barbara McReynolds was serving customers hamburger steaks, grilled potatoes and sweet tea, unaware that a Weather Service alert had just gone out advising residents to take cover.

Earlier in the evening, McReynolds said she had heard the city’s sirens. But as the tornado approached, she said she did not hear them. She was busy working when a woman burst into the restaurant, warning a twister was about to strike. McReynolds and eight others rushed into the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator.

When they emerged, the restaurant had been reduced to unrecognizable rubble.

“God saved our lives through a cooler,” McReynolds said.

Similar frantic quests to find safety played out throughout Rolling Fork, a city of 2,000 people surrounded on all sides by fields of corn, soybeans, rice and cotton. The city’s two sirens are located on the north and south ends of the community. But in interviews with The Post, residents on both sides said they did not hear them.

The only warning Natalie Nelson received about the tornado came from her father. She happened to be on the phone with her parents when her father mentioned a tornado warning had just been issued.

She grabbed her 3-year-old son and ran into a bathroom. The wind slammed against her home moments later.

“I don’t think it was that long, but it felt like a long time,” Nelson, 38, said. “I thought we were gonna die.”

Without her father’s warning, she doubts they would have gotten to the bathroom in time. Instead, she believes they would have gotten caught hunkering down in her kitchen, which was left badly damaged.

“Glass was blowing everywhere in the kitchen,” she said. “I don’t know that we would be here.”

Trouble with the alarm

The small gray-and-black box with a keypad to activate Rolling Fork’s alarms is one of the few intact items in the Sharkey County Sheriff’s Office. A white note is taped on the wall directly above it, scrawled with the two three-digit numbers that when punched in sound the city’s sirens.

On Monday, Jenkins, the dispatch supervisor, surveyed the damage. She said the system is tested monthly and that both alarms should have been working at the time of the storm.

“If there was a problem with it, we didn’t know anything about it,” she said.

When the dispatcher on duty contacted her Friday night, Jenkins was at her second job as a cashier at Dollar General. She recalled that the operator was “having trouble getting the alarm to sound, so I gave her the code.” Jenkins said she then heard the nearest siren go off, moments before the tornado hit. She ducked under a counter and survived.

Regardless of whether both sirens did or didn’t sound, Jenkins said, the city and county need more emergency management resources ahead of the next storm.

“We need more sirens. Three or four more sirens,” she said. “We need more resources in order to get the word out.”

The Mississippi Emergency Management Administration did not respond to an inquiry from The Post on whether it had gotten previous requests for additional storm preparedness funding in Sharkey County or had information on sirens in the area. In a statement, an agency spokesperson said, “Our focus right now is life safety and getting those people the assistance they need as quickly as we can.”

Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, indicated in an interview on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday that her office would be examining warning systems in the storm’s aftermath. She said that “some sirens did go off,” but did not indicate in which communities. In total, the storm left 25 dead across the state.

“I don’t have, you know, the exact picture of where they went off,” she said. “But sirens are one of the best tools that we do have to give a widespread warning to people quickly, especially when you have nocturnal tornadoes like this that happen while people are asleep.”

Criswell added: “We need to really talk to these families and find out how they would have better gotten this message.”

Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker said that he does not believe the sirens went off. On the night of the storm, he was at home with his wife monitoring the police radio when he first heard that a tornado was headed toward Rolling Fork. A deputy just outside the city called in to report seeing the windows of a home explode.

Walker lives close to the Dollar General and said he did not hear the nearby siren. But he blames the speed of the tornado, not the sheriff’s office, for any difficulties in alerting people to the pending storm. The mayor didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether the NWS’s 11-minute notice should have been sufficient to activate the sirens.

The county sheriff did not respond to requests for more details, abruptly hanging up the call when a Post reporter inquired for more information on the sirens and did not return text messages.

Grief and anguish

As they begin to sort through the rubble and prepare to bury the dead, some in this Mississippi town said they want answers and assurances that the next time a tornado approaches will be different.

Roy Watson and his wife were at home when the storm barreled in. Their television wasn’t working. And like several others in Rolling Fork, he said they didn’t receive any phone notifications. But his son called and alerted him. That gave the couple barely enough time to hunker down. A door flew off its hinge, slamming into the wall just above where they had ducked for cover.

Watson managed to push his wife into the safety of the bathroom. And then it was over.

His kitchen is gone, the table and chair where his wife had been sitting doing a jigsaw puzzle minutes earlier nowhere to be seen. He is convinced that if his son hadn’t called, neither he nor his wife would have survived.

Now he wonders why he didn’t hear the siren less than a half mile from his home.

“I don’t know why it didn’t go off,” he said, shaking his head. “But it didn’t go off.”

Scott Dance and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

Deadly tornadoes outbreak in Mississippi and Alabama

The latest: As a violent tornado neared Rolling Fork, some residents say they didn’t hear any sirens. Tornadoes are common in Mississippi — but not often this deadly — and mobile homes in Rolling Fork were most vulnerable to damage. On Friday, devastating tornadoes in Mississippi and Alabama killed at least 26 people.

Why was the Mississippi tornado’s size rare? It caused at least 25 deaths in the state along a path of 59.4 miles, according to the National Weather Service. Photos of damage in Mississippi show areas reduced to piles of wreckage. Here’s why Mississippi’s tornadoes were so deadly and the dangers of storm chasing in the dark.

Are there any relief efforts? For some Rolling Fork residents, recovery from the severe Mississippi tornado damage is uncertain. Here’s how to help those impacted by the tornadoes.