Dade County's new emergency alert tower, in place since late 2016, went off today for real for the first time to warn downtown Trenton of a possible tornado.
"It goes off automatically," said Alex Case, Dade's emergency services director. "I don't make that call."
Case explained that the giant siren goes off when the National Weather Services detects a nearby tornado. In this case, a tornado judged to threaten 7/8s of the county had been picked up, and Case said the alarm sounded at 1:23 p.m. this afternoon.
County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley said Administrative Building employees took shelter in the basement of the building when the unaccustomed voice of the tower shocked them from their daily tasks. "This wasn't a drill," he said. "This was the real deal."
EMS boss Case said his 911 staff stayed at their posts, but he was immediately in touch with school system principals, and students at all four schools assembled in their safe spaces in their respective buildings.
Colloquially, residents reported being directed to shelter in various Trenton businesses and public places. Dade takes tornado warnings seriously after its grim experience in 2011, when a school roof blew off and much of south Trenton was annihilated.
But no crisis came, and 911 Director Case said emergency measures were called off in most places within 15 to 20 minutes. He said the ambulance and police car sirens residents reported hearing shortly after the tornado warning were a result of two automotive crashes on I-59 that had happened about the same time as the tornado warning. No one was hurt in either, he said; it had been a case of vehicles hydroplaning on wet roads after the heavy rains of this morning.
The sheriff's offices in Jackson and DeKalb counties in Alabama reported the same situation: tornado warnings but no touchdown. Both those counties suffered even worse than Dade in 2011.
But Alex Case said safe was better than sorry. He and his staff monitor storms constantly, he said, and the weather map this morning had showed a seriously scary line of storms. "It was crazy," he said. "It was like a big long snake."
Dade is shortly to have two more of the imposing alert towers, which are largely paid for through a federal/state emergency services grant, with a small matching amount from the county. The new towers will be located near the Davis School on Sand Mountain and the Four Fields athletic complex on Highway 11 south of town.
The one in Trenton was installed in December 2016.