Sometimes, natural disasters strike while people are sleeping.
It happened Feb. 2, when three blockbuster tornadoes ripped through four Florida counties at
3 a.m., killing 20 people and destroying 1,500 homes.
Despite experiencing several tornadoes in recent decades, the presence of loud warning sirens in Gwinnett and surrounding counties is checkered.
Some cities have installed the devices and check them regularly. Others, for various reasons, have not.
At Gwinnett County police headquarters, Homeland Security Director Maj. Alan Doss said his office is researching warning sirens, but with 437 square miles to cover in the county, setting up such a system could become a real challenge.
"There are a lot of complications," he said. "There are maintenance issues. Tornadoes can come up so suddenly, without warning. And some people may not be paying attention to the sirens or may not know what they mean."
For now, the homeland security chief said his strongest recommendation to all citizens is to have a weather radio and keep it on at all times, if possible.
"For most people, if they pay attention to the weather reports," that should be sufficient warning, he said.
While Lawrenceville, Snellville, Buford, Braselton, Grayson, Loganville, Sugar Hill and Suwanee do not have warning systems, other cities have been watching the weather for years.
In Norcross, Police Chief Dallas Stidd said the city has had several warning signals in different locations for years.
"We test them audibly every week to be used for the threat of bad weather," he said. "They sound like air raid sirens."
The police also monitor the weather "silently," every few minutes, he said, through technology and other means.
At the Duluth Police Department, Maj. Don Woodruff said the city's five warning sirens are checked every Wednesday with the help of police officers on the road. They have been in place in five busy locations for years, installed with the aid of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, he said.
"We monitor the weather 365 days a year," Woodruff said.
In Duluth, the sirens are on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, Rogers Bridge Road, Ga. Highway 120, Pleasant Hill Road at W.B. Jones Park and at the Southeastern Railway Museum on Buford Highway.
Dacula has one siren near its City Hall on Harbins Road, employee Kay Partain said. Reed Miller, the city marshal checks its condition regularly and turns it on when he hears a report of seriously threatening weather.
In Auburn, Police Chief Fred Brown said he expects the city's four new sirens to be functioning well soon. He had hoped to have them in commission earlier, but dealing with two electric companies has held up the program somewhat, he said. The Alabama company that handled the project for Auburn charged $80,000 for four signals and their installations.
In Lilburn, the City Council decided not to install warning sirens but came up with another plan, City Manager Tom Combiths said.
When bad weather looms closely, officers will use the public address systems on the city's patrol cars to warn residents to take cover.
"We're also looking at a call center that would automatically call people," he said. "We put this in the budget and are looking at a couple of vendors."
In Winder, the government installed sirens in 1993 in four strategic locations throughout the city, Fire Chief Ray Mattison said. Fire and police officials monitor the weather at several sites.
"We have a strong protocol about when we sound them," he said. "We do not sound it for basic bad weather, but we turn them on if a tornado is spotted in any county that touches Barrow County."
"We bought a computer warning system that will work from 40 to 50 miles out, and we can watch the storm on the radar," Mattison said. "Meteorologists do the weather monitoring."
Winder has installed a computer calling system called "reverse 911." By this means, residents or businesses can receive a recorded message about impending bad weather and is the same operation that Lilburn is considering.
Sugar Hill City Manager Bob Hail has been working on the project for three to four months. His biggest obstacle is the absence of police or fire departments in the city, a situation that prevents 24-hour monitoring of the weather.
He is hoping to work out a cooperative venture with nearby Buford and Suwanee public safety departments, but the plans can be complicated.
"It's more than just putting one up," Hail said. "We have a lot of hills, and you have to have the right topography."
The expense also is a consideration. The cost is "upwards of $20,000 per siren," he said, and he expects the entire system to range in price between $65,000 and $80,000. In 1993, Mattison, recalls the large sirens were $10,000 each and the smaller, $5,000 each.