Sirens ignored by some, too distant for others in tornadoes' path

NEWBERN, Tenn. (AP) - Jackey Reynolds heard the tornado sirens and saw storm warnings on television, but he figured odds were good that the twisters would miss his home, so he didn't take shelter.

"We've had a lot of storms before," Reynolds said Tuesday. "We've had a lot of sirens go off before and nothing came of it."

But his family was nearly killed Sunday when swarms of violent thunderstorms and tornadoes devastated communities across eight states. The death toll in Tennessee rose to 24 on Tuesday with the discovery of the last unaccounted-for resident. Four others were killed in Missouri and southern Illinois.

Reynolds knows now that he should have heeded the warnings. A tornado tore off his roof in the town of Bradford and tugged his house off its foundation, forcing Reynolds, his two boys and one of their girlfriends to rush into the front yard and duck into a ditch.

All four survived without injuries, but the cluster of tornadoes destroyed more than 1,000 buildings in western Tennessee.

Officials say some residents disregarded the warning sirens that go off frequently during spring thunderstorms. Other neighborhoods were too remote to hear the sirens. And in some cases, the tornadoes struck too quickly after the warnings for people to take cover.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, who surveyed the damage Tuesday, said he's ambivalent about the warning sirens.

"If they work right, they're obviously a lifesaver. On the other hand, you worry that either they won't go off, or they go off so often that it becomes crying wolf," Bredesen said. "I mean, when's the last time you heard a car alarm going off and you said, 'Oh my God, there's someone breaking into a car!"'

A meteorologist said at least one tornado in Tennessee's hard-hit Dyer County appeared to be an F-3 on the Fujita scale used to measure a twister's strength, with winds from 158 to 206 mph, strong enough to tear down walls.

Dyer County's emergency management director, James Medling, said in some cases, a warning would not have helped.

"Most of the fatalities occurred in those homes that were wiped completely off, and there's just not a lot you can do unless you're underground in a basement," Medling said.

Dyersburg Police Chief Bobby Williamson said he cannot hear the sirens in his rural neighborhood. He knew to duck into a closet while the storm rattled his house only because of warnings on television and the threatening skies.

"I'm just thankful we're alive. That's all that matters," Williamson said. "I can get a new house, but some people are going to a funeral."

U.S. Rep. John Tanner, who accompanied Bredesen on the tour, said his cousin was killed by a tornado that destroyed her home near Newbern.

"When you have 20-something fatalities, that's just a number. This really puts a face to it," said Tanner, D-Tenn., who was visibly shaken.

Bredesen said he had requested a federal disaster declaration for Dyer and Gibson counties. He said hadn't gotten a reply yet Tuesday, but said he had been assured the area would get some help. "I have never seen anything like this, and I've been through several tornadoes. I'm used to seeing roofs off houses, houses blown over - these houses were down to their foundations, stripped clean," Bredesen said.

The buzz of chain saws filled the air during the governor's tour as neighbors worked to clear debris and patch roofs. Electric crews erected new utility poles.

Clothing and other belongings still hung from many limbs. People spray painted numbers on their houses because street signs had been blown away and set up makeshift pens for livestock.

The Democratic governor took extra time in Newbern to walk alone amid the rubble of a home where an 11-month-old boy and his grandparents were killed.

"I just wanted to pay my respects for the family and the small child," he said later. "There, where the kitchen used to be, there is a water-soaked teddy bear."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)