Victoria residents question city's tornado preparedness

Jennifer Lee Preyss By Jennifer Lee Preyss

May 26, 2013 at 12:26 a.m.
Updated May 28, 2013 at 12:28 a.m.

Bobby Trevino was home alone Saturday, when a tornado touched ground north of Victoria.

His home and cellphones were nearby and silent; the television news stations ran tornado warning tickers at the bottom of the screen, he said. The weather outside seemed like another bad thunderstorm.

After logging on to Facebook, however, Trevino noticed threads of discussion referencing a tornado touching down in Victoria only a few miles from his home. He was unaware multiple funnel clouds were nearby and remained confused Saturday about why residents of Victoria seemed largely uninformed about a potential emergency situation.

"I know some people got warnings. My wife had an alert on her cellphone. But I was home alone. I didn't get a text or a phone call from the city," Trevino said. "You're sitting there wondering where the warning was."

Trevino uses a wheelchair and said it would have been difficult for him to take cover or leave his home without an appropriate warning. He gives city officials an "A for effort," for attempting to spread the word about the severe weather but thinks more can and should be done to warn residents.

"I think the city needs to go back and make some improvements to their system. I don't know how they get the phone numbers on their list, but I know I wasn't on it," he said. "If it hadn't been for Facebook and the Advocate, I wouldn't have known."

Trevino wasn't the only Victoria resident to question the city's warning system Saturday.

Jonathan Williams, 34, of Victoria, said he was having lunch at Grand Buffet on North Navarro Street when his WeatherBug application sent his cellphone a severe weather alert.

"I didn't know anything about the tornado until my phone went off," he said.

Williams said he was thankful the alert came in on his phone but recognizes not everyone has a smartphone, or cellphone equipped to receive such notices. He said if the city had invested in a universal emergency siren, such as those in neighboring cities, many more people would have known there was a potential emergency.

"In light of recent events, I think the emergency management coordinator needs to look at what kind of plan he's got to alert us, so people aren't sitting down watching TV and not realizing there's something funneling above them," he said. "The emergency sirens are typically found in the Midwest, and that makes sense, but it's kind of like insurance; you have it and use it when you need it."

Emergency coordinator Jeb Lacey said Victoria responded appropriately to the tornado and remained proactive about releasing information to residents.

He said when he was initially informed of the incident, he was advised the tornado was "well north of the city and moving toward an unpopulated, rural area in the county."

Lacey said posts about the tornado were published on Facebook, and he issued comments to the Advocate. Wireless alerts also went out to cellular devices and news tickers running on television.

"When an event like this unfolds, we reach out through the media and use the tools we have at our disposal as quickly as possible," Lacey said.

He emphasized that tornadoes are rapid-moving, unlike hurricanes that can be charted and watched for days prior to impact.

Lacey said he will continue to keep the community informed when severe weather hits Victoria but advises everyone to remain proactive and prepared for emergencies beforehand.

He said one of the best investments residents can make, alongside a smoke detector, is to purchase a weather radio that is enabled with Specific Area Message Encoding, or SAME. This radio sends alerts when severe weather affects the immediate area.

He also advised people to register their home and cellphone numbers with the city's reverse 911 system, which can send alerts via recorded message when emergencies arise.

Lacey said a reverse 911 call was not issued Saturday because of the limited time.

"There was initially no way to know where the (tornado) was, and there wouldn't have been time to organize a reverse 911 call. Tornadoes are not what reverse 911 calls are used for. By then the event would be over."

Responding to questions about why the city does not have an emergency siren, Lacey said sirens are expensive and do not communicate enough information during an emergency situation.

"There are much better things out there now than communicating to the community with a simple siren," he said. "We've considered sirens, but the conclusion we always come to is that they do not do enough to warn people."

Other counties, like Jackson and Calhoun, use similar methods of warning residents when severe weather hits, mostly for hurricanes, including the use of a reverse 911 system.

Allan Friedrich, Jackson County's emergency management coordinator, said he also advises residents to register their home and cellphone numbers, so they can receive alerts from officials when emergencies arise. The system is about to be upgraded June 1, he said, which will speed up the output of emergency notifications to residents. Currently, the county uses 16 phone lines to dispense the reverse 911 call. The June upgrade will include 584 additional phone lines, so everyone in the county will get a message about the same time. Friedrich said the cities of Edna and Ganado also have sirens, but they have not been used in some time.

Calhoun County Sheriff George Aleman said his agency employs the reverse 911 system. He said the city of Port Lavaca has an emergency siren, but the county does not. He said residents of Calhoun County can download the sheriff's application on Androids and iPhones and receive emergency alerts about weather, wrecks and other important information.

Friedrich, Aleman and Lacey all said the best defense against severe storms is preparedness.

"One thing is certain: We will continue to push efforts for individual citizens to be active in their own defense," Lacey said. "We want to reduce the vulnerability of our citizens against all hazards."



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