Severe weather came ‘without warning’ in Newton

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COVINGTON, Ga. — Local and area emergency officials say the best way Newton Countians could have been prepared for a tornado last week was by using a weather radio or any number of severe storm notification services.

However, Jody Nolan, director of the Newton County Emergency Management Agency, said the agency he leads will be “confirming operation” Wednesday, Jan. 5, of weather sirens in the area of the EF-1 tornado that tore through west Newton County on New Year’s Eve.

Area residents complained on social media they did not hear sirens go off before a tornado damaged a school, commercial establishments and homes Friday, Dec. 31, along a two-mile path through west Newton County.

“I want to know why I didn’t hear any sirens and I live a half a mile away from it,” one resident asked on the county’s Facebook page.

District 113 State Rep. Sharon Henderson, D-Covington, said neighbors near her west Newton home complained to her that they did not hear sirens before the tornado hit around 5:45 p.m.

Nolan said sirens were in place in three locations in west Newton at the time of the tornado: Fire Station 7 at 11662 Brown Bridge Road; Station 14 at 6169 Hwy. 212; and at the intersection of Kirkland and Salem roads. 

However, Vaughn Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Peachtree City office, said weather sirens are only effective as warning devices for those outdoors at the time. 

They also only warn someone to take cover immediately rather than prepare for a severe weather occurrence, Smith said. The best methods are use of a NOAA weather radio or weather app for smart phones, he said.

Smith said the National Weather Service sends a notification about a tornado warning to a county-level emergency dispatcher in Georgia who then sends a signal to the sirens to activate them. 

Nolan said Newton County operates 23 weather sirens which are tested weekly on Wednesdays at noon. They are located in each of the cities in Newton County as well as throughout the county’s unincorporated areas, he said.

The sirens “primarily are placed where they could provide warning” to people outdoors in the nearby area, Nolan said.

Each siren costs $15,000 to $18,000 and can only be “truly effective” as a warning device if one is placed every 1/4 square mile in the county, Nolan said.

“With Newton County having over 276 square miles we would need over 1,100 sirens,” Nolan said.

“Sirens have become less effective due to the insulation factor in homes and businesses,” Nolan said. “A siren only provides minimal service.”

He said Newton County subscribes to a service called Code Red for emergency alert notifications at https://public.coderedweb.com/CNE/en-US/BFB7CC4C6C0A?isMobile=true. 

“Citizens must register for this service, then they can receive warnings via home phone and or cell phone,” he said. “Citizens can also select to receive text warnings to be sent via email or text messages to their phone. 

“This notification method far surpasses the ability of sirens to warn the public,” he said.

He said the county government has likely done all it can do to publicize the service for which Newton County pays an annual subscription fee.

The county has issued press releases about it and stories about it have been printed in local media outlets like The Covington News, he said.

“It only takes a few minutes to register. This link is also available on Newton County’s website — I recommend citizens register from a computer rather than their cell phone,” he said.

Henderson said Code Red and other, similar warning services likely are best used in the event of weather emergencies but said she believed the county needs to consider adding more sirens.

“This tornado is a learning experience,” she said.

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