Ashburn learns a hard lesson from tornado

February 4, 2008

Ashburn --   There's another threat for severe weather this week, and Ashburn residents question if Turner County and the city are as storm ready as they could be.

Residents say they were given no warning December 15th when a deadly tornado ripped through their community.

The weather siren never sounded.  You'll be shocked to learn that it may have been some time since the siren was tested, and routine maintenance to keep the siren operational, simply wasn't done.

  In our series "Are We Ready?" WALB News Ten's Jennifer Emert went to Turner County to find out who's responsibility was it and what's been done to make Turner County storm ready?

Plywood now lines the walls of Beatriz Garcia girl's bedroom where a tree came through the wall.  She had no warning December 15th that a tornado was bearing down on Ashburn.

"I got scared when I opened the door and I saw the trees everywhere and I didn't know what was going on," said Garcia.

When the tornado hit Ashburn after dark, Turner County's only siren, just behind her house, never sounded.

"They always worked, but this time they didn't, I don't know why," said Garcia.

  That night, Ashburn Fire Chief and EMA Director Brian Meadows radioed 911 and demand the siren be sounded.

"Turner County answer me," he said on the radio.

Response:  "301..."

 Meadows: "Enact emergency protocol, sound the sirens in the city immediately." 

Response: "10-4."

 "I feel like the advance notice would have given them more time to take some precautions that they probably weren't able to have," said Meadows.

Thirty seconds later, it was too late.

 "311 to all units I think 911 is down..."

 Initially county leaders said the siren never sounded because the power went out as the dispatcher seen in surveillance video sounded the alarm. There should have been back up batteries and more questioning revealed seven batteries in the siren were so corroded the siren failed. 

 "Over a period of time I understand the batteries had corroded up and it just didn't work so we've taken steps to correct that," says Turner County Commissioner Deral Dukes.             

It's taught the county a valuable lesson, simple maintenance, could have cost them lives December 15th.

 "If you have something that needs to be tested on a regular basis, have several people involved in that loop so if that person who's been doing that's not available you have back up personnel," said Turner County Manager Charles Kinney. 

During the storm, Turner County had no emergency management director.  The former director had resigned five months before and wasn't replaced.  Interim director, Randall Whiddon, was out of the county that night.  Dispatchers should have gotten an alert from the National Weather Service and put out the warning without the fire chief having to prompt them.  

" You want a coordinated, unified effort when you have to deal with something like this.  I think each time as we look back whatever the case may be that's what we should be looking at," Kinney says.

Turner County's unified effort now includes getting all of the dispatchers up to speed.

 "Every person who now works at 911 has the capability of testing that siren,' Kinney says.

And the capability of setting it off.  The siren is being tested every morning, silently.  Reports are also checked to ensure siren's batteries are working.  There a new maintenance agreement for the siren and Peter Giddens, a former Albany Fire Captain, was named EMA Director.

 "He brings a lot of experience to the job and I think he will offer the leadership we need as an EMA Director," says Kinney.

It's strained relationships between the city of Ashburn and Turner County and has many wondering if they'll be safe the next time a storm strikes.

 "It should have gone off and if it had it could have warned some of these people for the danger that was coming," said Ashburn Councilman Artie Eld.         

"The citizens depend on us to provide those warnings just like the public safety agencies depend on national weather, and GEMA, and WALB, and other news media to give us the heads up," said Meadows.

Residents likely won't know if this problem has been resolved until another storm hits.  While the county has  fixed the siren and hired a part time EMA Director, they've done little else to ensure residents safety.  We asked about the possibility of grants for weather radios and other safety measures the county is considering.  They say that will be up to the new County EMA Director to pursue. 

Ashburn's Fire Chief Brian Meadows planned to solicit the community for volunteer storm watchers called the 'Ashburn Minutemen,' that might help alert the community, but that program is just getting started. 

Peter Giddens started his job as Turner County EMA Director January 23rd.  WALB News Ten continues to take a critical look at how south Georgia communities are responding to severe weather.

 On Thursday, we'll show you how one community is turning away from weather sirens and looking to weather radios for protection. 

WALB News Ten is concerned about community safety.  In conjunction with Harvey's Supermarkets, we're running a weather radio event Thursday, February seventh at the Harvey's on North Slappey.