The weather system also tested the county’s newly installed emergency alert system, that went operational on March 1. However it failed due to software mapping discrepancies.
The system is designed to alert citizens to weather warnings (not watches) by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA issued a tornado warning at 5:31 p.m. for the southern portion of Walker County. The tornado siren in LaFayette wailed at 5:32 p.m., according to chief Robert Busby of the LaFayette Fire Department.
The Walker County Community Alert notification was delayed until 6:05 p.m. due to a mapping problem that occurred with Hyper Reach, the company contracted to provide the service, according to Curtis Creekmur, operations chief of Emergency Management Agency for Walker County.
“We just started implementing it and this was our first (weather) event,” Creekmur said “There was some links between GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and the database that weren’t completed correctly or completed at all.”
He spoke with a software technician from the company after the system problems were discovered, and the technical glitches were rectified before the warning ended.
“It won’t (necessarily) go out to everybody,” said David Ashburn, Walker County coordinator. “It will go out to those that are in the greatest risk areas (determined by NOAA), unless the whole county could be affected.”
Approximately 3,400 text messages were sent during the “campaign” of electronically dialing phones by Hyper Reach, which took nine minutes. More than 350 emails were sent to those who selected to be notified that way.
The campaign at 6:06 p.m. had planned to notify approximately 7,000 cell phones, but was halted as the tornado warning expired at 6:15 p.m., which apparently left many wondering if they had signed up properly.
Had it worked properly, the alert would have begun immediately as the NOAA alert started and been completed within the initial 20 minutes of the 90 minute warning.
The system is also designed to alert people (via text message) traveling through the area, and not in the system’s database.
That type of (non-subscriber) alert is not currently operational, as FEMA has not certified the county’s application as of yet, according to Creekmur.
County officials have submitted the application required to send information to local cell towers within a warning area.
While TV meteorologists will commonly state a specific county is under a warning, the NOAA designations are more specific to communities.
The Hyper Reach notification would have only been sent to areas south of LaFayette, like Center Post community.
Fortunately, the most damaging winds were further south in Floyd County and the system’s incompatibility occurred during a more minor weather event and not a situation like the April 27, 2012, tornadoes that could have put lives at risk.
The system is designed to act similar to a tornado siren, cautioning people to take cover immediately. It is not intended for advanced weather notifications, like thunderstorm or tornado watches.
Officials believe that citizens would tune out due to the frequency of weather watch alerts issued by NOAA.
“The watch was issued a long time before the warning,” Ashburn said.
“It would be like the (boy who) cried wolf syndrome, and every time that phone would go off with a watch, people would eventually quit paying attention to it because we get so many (watches) through this area,” Creekmur said.
The March 18 weather system did knock down a number tree and temporarily block a few county roads.
The most extensive wind damage reported is to a county-owned barn at Mountain Cove Farms. It was located toward the rear of the property and was not being used. Officials had hoped to develop the barn into a horse boarding/rental facility, according to Ashburn.
Officials urge citizens, wanting earlier and more frequent warnings, to purchase a weather radio or download notification apps for their cell phones.