Beaufort County residents are about to get a taste of what life is like in the tornado-prone Midwest.
On Monday night, Beaufort County Council approved funding for 12 sirens, which will be placed in high traffic areas across the county, such as schools, recreation centers and even the Sea Pines traffic circle.
Any time the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, the sirens will automatically transmit a sound, audible up to 2 miles away, alerting residents to seek shelter.
Although tornadoes occur infrequently in Beaufort County — the National Weather Service indicates that only three have touched down since 2010 and none since 2014 — interim county administrator Josh Gruber said the county identified a need for them.
"It doesn't mean that we aren't susceptible to having tornadoes in this area," he said. "We've got a documented history of it happening."
The proposal presented to the County Council showed that having sirens will help get the message to people who lack technology, such as reliable access to internet or smartphones, to track tornadoes on their own. There are some portions of the county where greater than 6 percent of households don't have phone service.
Although the public was not asked to weigh in on the matter, Eric Larson, the county's disaster recovery task force director, said word-of-mouth has indicated positive feedback so far.
"Everybody's happy to have the sirens in their neighborhood," he said. "And, if anything, the only negative complaints were, 'How come you didn't do one here?'"
Larson and Gruber were not able to say when the sirens will be installed, but the deadline for the project's completion is April 2020.
Larson said neighborhoods could see the sirens sooner than that, however. Once the county decides on a contractor, it will take only three to six months for implementation.
Not all parts of the county will be served by the sirens at first, but he said it would be easy for the county to add more once it installs the initial infrastructure.
Both Larson and Gruber anticipate the sirens' primary use to be for tornado warnings, but Larson said they eventually could be activated to indicate other hazardous conditions, including severe thunderstorms or chemical spills. However, Gruber said he does not want to confuse the community with multiple interpretations.
"We don't want to create an opportunity where we're activating the sirens without (residents) understanding what it means," he said.
The 12 sirens will cost just over $500,000 and will be paid for with a grant from Federal Emergency Management Agency and with money from the state leftover from the Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Irma cleanups.
County Council applied for the FEMA grant in April 2017. Larson and Gruber said more grant applications are in the works for future weather preparation projects, including an emergency shelter and backup generators to power Beaufort County Airport on Lady's Island and Buckwalter Recreation Center in Bluffton.
Gruber said the new sirens will work with existing alert systems. Even though tornadoes do not form often in Beaufort County, Larson stressed the importance of resident preparedness for the possibility. He also said to take any sirens seriously.
"They should expect to see these things, know when they go off and when they go off, pay attention to them," he said.