‘Perfect storm’ strikes without warning, catches school buses en route

“It was probably the most unusual storm I’ve ever dealt with,” said Blount County Supt. Jim Carr, referring to the suddenness with which it struck on Monday, March 18, even though they had been monitoring conditions continuously throughout the day at the central office.

“It was almost a perfect storm in its timing, from a negative standpoint,” he added. He said the storm hit initially just after three o’clock, too late to hold school buses, which had left schools about 15 to 30 minutes earlier. So, they were already on their routes when the storm hit.

The consequences, while unsettling, were not as bad as they could have been: two school buses out of 102 were damaged but not seriously, and about 20 buses were delayed on their routes by widespread downed trees or traffic congestion resulting from blocked roads. Several buses returned to schools without completing their routes, necessitating that parents be notified to pick up their children at the school. Straight-line winds don’t ‘turn on’ sirens

The storm hit suddenly and was over quickly, leaving extensive destruction in overturned trees and tree limbs blocking roads, but not a great deal of damage to structures, though there were isolated reports of damaged chicken houses, outbuildings, and some building damage along city streets.

The highest recorded windspeed from the straight-line winds was 55 mph reported from an observer in west Blount County, according to Emergency Management Agency director Max Armstrong.

He added that from his observation of damage that occurred, winds gusts must have reached speeds higher than that.

Some residents called the newspaper to inquire why tornado warning sirens failed to sound. Armstrong said that emergency management policy is to sound sirens only when the National Weather Service (NWS) issues a tornado warning for a certain area. Sirens are then activated for that area, he said. That is a common and widely-accepted policy for warning sirens, he said. The NWS issued no tornado warning for the March 18 severe weather event

“If we sounded the sirens for every thunderstorm or hazardous situation that occurs, people wouldn’t pay attention to tornado warnings, which are truly life threatening situations,” he said. When tornado sirens sound, the danger is imminent, since they are sounded only when a tornado has been seen in the area, either on radar or by observers on the ground, he said.

“That’s why people should have multiple warning methods, such as a weather radio, television, or smartphone bulletins. They shouldn’t rely on sirens alone,” he said.” He said sirens are intended as outdoor warning signals only. They are not, and are not intended to be, loud enough to alert people inside their homes.

“People should already have a plan in mind as to where they will go for shelter during a hazardous weather outbreak,” Armstrong said. “If they don’t they can call us at 625-4121 and we’ll help them formulate a plan.”