Wilson Creek sirens called 'deafening vibration in your head'
When it finally came time Wednesday to test the series of emergency sirens set up along an 8-mile stretch of Wilson Creek, nothing happened. The only sound heard was the rushing waters of the nearby creek.
But about a half-hour later, once officials flipped the switch, a shrill, 125-decibel wail like a World War II air raid siren pierced the mountain air at Brown Mountain Beach campground.
Pat Clark, who has lived across from the Brown Mountain Beach visitor's center for 30 years, made it a point to be at home for the test. Her log house has thick walls and is heavily insulated. She wanted to be in her bedroom, which faces the front of the house, to hear how loud the sirens just across the road actually were. After the test, she sounded off.
"It would be a frightening thing to hear in the middle of the night," she said. "After walking out onto the front porch, it's a deafening vibration in your head. I do not agree with the locations of these sirens."
The clusters of sirens installed this summer at Edgemont, Mortimer, the Wilson Creek Visitor Center, the Deer Horn campground and Brown Mountain Beach campground are designed to be set off in case of a flash flood warning or tornado warning. They can also be manually triggered in case of a local flood that wouldn't trigger a flash flood warning. Designed to be heard three miles away, the sirens are supposed to sound for three minutes.
The test of the sirens was supposed to happen at noon, with a flip of a switch at the Caldwell County communications center. A group of officials waiting at Brown Mountain Beach stood with hands over their ears and waited. And waited.
Officials said the box attached to the pole below the sirens there was not programmed correctly, silencing the entire chain of sirens. One by one, the sirens had to be manually switched on for the test.
"This was the first time we've tested them," Collettsville Fire and Rescue Capt. Larry Price said. "All we had was a technical issue with programming of setting the siren off. They are fully functional, as you could hear and see."
Wilson Creek is fed by a vast amount of mountainside, and heavy rains in a distant area of that territory can rapidly alter the creek even where it may not be raining. Even when there are not flash-flood conditions, the water can be treacherous -- since 2007 six people have drowned, three of them this year.
"We've needed this for years," Price said. "A great example is if we have a lot of rain near Grandfather Mountain, we'll have a wall of water come down, and it will rise quickly. And it can be perfectly blue skies here. We have a lot of visitors that come here. It's absolutely a wonderful beautiful place to visit, but if the water comes up it can be also be dangerous."
Price said some if not all of those victims, all from out of town, might have been saved with the siren system in place.
But the sirens have been controversial among people who live in the Wilson Creek area.
Clark, for instance, feels the sirens are ill-placed.
"Unfortunately, I don't think these sirens are going to save lives where they are now," she said. "I don't need a siren in the middle of the night to wake me up. They need to be down in the gorge. They put these in areas where the electricity is. They could have taken the grant money and used some of it to get electricity in the gorge."
Price disagreed, saying the sirens are placed to project sound down the valley.
The sirens are scheduled to be tested on the first Wednesday of each month for 10 seconds. But Clark doesn't want to hear it.
"I think it's sad when our Caldwell County leadership thinks more about the visitors and tourists than the residents who are here who pay taxes, pay the fire department, rescue squad, and put our leaders in office," she said.