Those areas fall in the Atlanta television market. East Alabama viewers had to look for a tornado warning on the ticker running across the bottom of the screen, said Mike Fisher, Roanoke mayor.
The April tornadoes — which killed 238 people across the state — put a new emphasis on the old problem of an incomplete warning system in his home county and spurred Mayor Fisher to write a letter to Randolph County’s congressional delegation.
“We just want to be safe like everybody else in Alabama,” Fisher said.
The deadly storms “opened the eyes of many people … who were unaware of what was happening around them” because of the television market the county falls in, Fisher wrote.
Cleburne and Randolph counties are among 56 counties in the Atlanta “designated market area,” which reaches 2.2 million households. The market areas are established by Nielsen Media Research for stations and networks in setting advertising rates.
And because many people in the two rural counties are too spread out for cable and too far away from major cities to pick up television signals with a standard antenna, many residents turn to satellite. Federal law provides for local channels to be delivered via satellite, but only those stations in the viewer’s designated market area.
Because of that, satellite service doesn’t pick up any Alabama stations. The only immediate local weather coverage available is through the Randolph County Emergency Management Agency broadcasts over scanners, the local radio station and weather alert radios, Fisher said. He doubts those communication media reach as many people as television.
If you didn’t have a scanner you were “pretty much out of luck,” Fisher said.
Severe weather in Alabama typically flows from west to east, said Jody Aaron, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
And when these powerful storms are moving west to east and Randolph County’s main weather information originates roughly 80 miles to the northeast “that’s not a good thing,” said Donnie Knight, county EMA director. A few seconds warning can make all the difference in the world — a fact made all the more evident after the events of April 27, he said.
“If they’re not able to listen to me (or) they can’t listen to … our local radio station then they could get blowed away and not know it until they’re blowed away,” Knight said.
He declined to estimate how many county residents have scanners or listen to the radio or a weather radio. But, he said, “there’s a lot of people that has no idea what the weather’s like unless they’re watching TV.”
The Randolph County Commission held a meeting in the county courthouse a few years ago with some legislators, Knight recalled. A lot of talk circulated about what they were trying to do, but nothing panned out of the meeting, he said. Attempts to reach the Randolph County Commission Thursday were unsuccessful.
As of Thursday, none of the Randolph County congressional delegation had replied to Mayor Fisher’s letter. Attempts to reach Sen. Richard Shelby were unsuccessful.
“Needs to be something done about it,” Knight said. “You would think the senators and the legislators and all would be able to get something done about that.”
Archival information from The Star is included in this report
Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546