Round Rock damage survey after Monday’s tornado touchdown (Photo by Jana Birchum)
Like at least five tornadoes swept through the greater Austin area late Monday afternoon, Central Texans took to social media to complain about yet another backlog in regional infrastructure: Little storm sirens stood ready to warn the inhabitants of the arrival of a disaster. Only a handful of Mermaids are located in Travis County, mostly on University of Texas property near downtown Austin. In Williamson County, Georgetown installed sirens at regular distances covering downtown and north to the municipal airport, but more rural areas of the county like Granger, where a tornado touched down and damage caused by the storm were more serious, lack this infrastructure.
Although reports from the previous weekend had begun to suggest the possibility of tornadoes on Monday, the warning issued shortly after 2 p.m. Monday surprised many people. As extreme weather events in the area seem to be getting more frequent, Central Texans said they would like to see a better notification system. But storm sirens can cost up to $30,000, not including annual maintenance costs, and can usually only be heard within a 1-2 mile radius. Stacey Osborne, the communications manager for Taylor, 10 miles south of the tornado’s path, said storm sirens are no longer as necessary due to the near ubiquity of cell phones. emergency alert text services are offered by Emergency Management Offices in Travis and Williamson Counties, by the National Weather Service, and by some municipalities including Taylor. But these solutions are also not 100% effective; users must ensure that they are registered to receive alerts. During Monday afternoon’s storm, some homeowners within a mile of where the tornadoes hit complained of not receiving text alerts.
Additionally, tornadoes are rare in central Texas. Monday afternoon’s tornado warning was the first to be issued in Austin in a decade. But tornadoes have struck central Texas with vicious force in the past. In 1997, a tornado outbreak with striking similarities to the one that occurred on Monday passed over the I-35 corridor; a touchdown that hit Jarrell, north of Georgetown, killed 27 people and injured dozens more. The disaster prompted several surrounding municipalities, including nearby Hutto, to discuss installing sirens. Since this tornado struck in the late 90s, the population of the Austin suburbs where the tornadoes hit has exploded. Since 2010, the population of Williamson County, on the outskirts of Austin, has grown nearly 8%, making it the fastest growing county in the nation over that time.
No deaths were reported due to the storms that hit Monday, but at least three people were injured in Elgin and one person was taken to hospital in Austin. At a press conference Monday night, Gov. Greg Abbott said “it could be a miracle”, there was no loss of life.