Alabama Department of Transportation Grants Temporary Tornado Shelter Signs in DeKalb County


One of the signs designed by DeKalb locals to warn residents of the impending tornado.  

May 17, 2012 — DeKalb County schools Superintendent Charles Warren witnessed the devastating impact of the tornado that touched down in the rural region April 27, 2011. In the weeks prior to the disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stepped in and funded 75% of the construction cost of a tornado shelter at the centrally located Plainview High School. Despite the existence of shelter that houses over six hundred people, thirty-three individuals died in the disaster, because they couldn’t find their way to the shelter.

Over a year after the tragedy, word of another potentially destructive tornado reached DeKalb. Warren and other local government officials hoped to take proactive strides to keep residents safe. They began petitioning the Alabama State Department of Transportation to install tornado warning and shelter signs on state roads so that citizens would know where to go in the event of a serious twister.

Tensions began to rise when Warren and his cohorts were met with opposition by DOT officials. The state initially rebutted DeKalb’s request, citing that the installation of shelter directional signs would clutter state highways and prove a distraction to motorists. Department of Transportation traffic engineer Travis Kilgore elaborated on the state’s position, adding that the “overcrowding of signs can…often lead to a disregard or disrespect of necessary regulatory and roadway warning signs.” Kilgore insisted that students attending Plainview would tell their families and friends about the shelter’s existence, and those looking for a safe place in the event of a tornado would seek out the structure at Plainview.

This was not the first instance of the state of Alabama flashing bureaucratic red tape in the county.  In the wake of FEMA’s valiant provision of the high school storm shelter, the federal organization demanded that the school district either buy back the exorbitantly costly “temporary” structure or allow the government to spend further taxpayer dollars to demolish it. DeKalb County, whose residents had suffered the brunt of numerous tornadoes over the years, desperately fought to retain the shelter at no further cost to the financially distraught district and finally won out.


The damage of a previous tornado in DeKalb County devastated homes and killed 33 people.  (Fox News)

The district’s latest battle held echoes of the past, as the Department of Transportation finally backed down on its road sign prohibition after Fox News published an investigative report on the conflict. Superintendent Warren simply expressed his relief at the state’s change of heart, noting that Highway 35, where he originally suggested the directional signs be posted, is one of the busiest routes in Northern Alabama, and could potentially save hundreds of lives of people traveling through that don’t know the area as well as locals. DeKalb County has already prepared two large signs to be placed along the route to help drivers find safe shelter during the tornado.

Tornado warnings have long been under scrutiny by the state and national government for their ability to function as safety provisions as well as incite panic. In 1948, the first tornado forecast was made by United States Air Force Captain Robert C. Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush. Prior to 1950, even using the word “tornado” in a radio broadcast was banned so as not to alarm citizens, even if there was a real threat. Much like the controversy in Alabama this past week, officials weighed the risk of mass hysteria as a greater concern than mass safety.

Such a paradigm of thought is extremely damaging to the timely safety efforts that must be enacted as soon as an area becomes aware of imminent danger, particularly natural disasters whose wrath is certain and unavoidable. Radio forecasts warning of harsh weather are certainly important when preparing for a disastrous event, but signs that not only warn residents but also direct them toward shelter may be the last mode of communication present in the event of a storm hitting. Since electricity is often one of the first amenities to be lost when severe weather hits an area, direct safety instructions implemented on the ground are often the most crucial form of guidance for distraught citizens.

A double-sided tornado shelter sign like this is a concise, easy-to-spot method of alerting residents of a storm warning.  (

Kilgore’s primary concern in the state’s initial refusal to install the tornado shelter signs on state roads came from a preoccupation with the potential danger of cluttering highway signage. Perhaps unnecessary information poses a threat when it distracts drivers, but, as Warren astutely pointed out, much of the traffic on state roads comes from out of state vehicles. For a driver from out of town that lacks knowledge about an impending tornado, a distracting sign could mean the difference between life and death for the otherwise oblivious traveler.

Despite the bureaucratic red tape that Warren and his fellow citizens were forced to navigate, they took great care to design the most informative and accessible tornado warning and shelter signs. Bilingual, with a clear message and an easily readable graphic, the signs fulfilled their purpose of rapidly informing passersby of imminent danger in the most straightforward manner possible.

– R. Sapon-White