Many people like to make a New Year’s resolution. As we start this new year and new decade, I think our state leadership needs to make a resolution: To improve our storm warning systems.
Alabama is no stranger to deadly storms. Twenty-three people died in the tornado that struck Lee County earlier this year. More recently, two people died in Town Creek, leaving behind their six-year-old son. And the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa and other parts of Alabama in 2011 killed 64 people.
In fact, Alabama leads the nation in tornado deaths, with an average of 14 people killed every year.
While no human being can control the weather, we can control how well and how quickly we warn people. And we can do a better job of explaining why and when you need to take cover or, preferably, get out of the path of the storm.
For example, many people don’t realize that you are supposed to get out of the path of a storm when a meteorologist or weather reporter says that a tornado watch – not a tornado warning – has been issued.
But the biggest steps we can take are to improve our warning systems, and that means focusing on two areas.
First, we have to update and expand our warning sirens. After the tornado struck Town Creek the other week, Lawrence County’s emergency management director, Johnny Cantrell, said that the warning sirens failed to sound before the tornado hit. What’s worse is that he also said it wouldn’t have mattered if they had gone off because Town Creek is too far away from the sirens for the people who live there to hear them.
While we do need to have other systems besides just the sirens, not everyone has a weather radio, and some people may not have their cell phone with them when the storm strikes. Or they may be in an area with poor cell phone reception or poor broadband access and therefore can’t receive the warning any other way than by the sirens.
Updating and expanding our sirens should be a top priority for lawmakers when they write the budgets for the coming year!
That said the second area where we need to focus our efforts is expanding cell phone towers and broadband Internet access so we can warn people about approaching storms.
Anyone who’s spent much time driving along our back roads or rural highways knows we have far too many dead spots where cell phone reception is non-existent. Anyone caught in one of those areas when a storm hits would have no way of being warned.
And a recent article in al.com reported that one out of every four Alabamians lives in a home without Internet access. The article also said there are only three counties in the entire state where more than 82 percent of households have Internet Access.
That means that even in the most technologically advanced counties, about one in five residents still don’t have access to the Internet and therefore cannot receive a storm warning over from any device that requires Internet access.
The problem of expanding broadband and cell phone access has plagued Alabama’s leaders for years. The solution may require tax credits for private companies, spending tax dollars to build state-owned towers, or some combination of the two. The pros and cons of all these choices can be debated, but state leaders need to pick a path and pour themselves into it as soon as possible. Lives are literally hanging in the balance!
I know that 2020 will be a tough year for our state leaders. They have a lot of significant issues to address, particularly with our prison system and the future of education in Alabama. But we need to see a solid investment in our siren systems and at least some sort of agreement on a plan to improve cell phone and broadband access.
Improving our storm warning systems should be a top priority, and I call on our leaders – especially those representing rural areas – to make these systems a priority.
Craig Ford is the owner of Hodges-Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.