Coverage gaps keep weather warnings from reaching all

06/04/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

Coverage gaps keep weather warnings from reaching all

The National Weather Service has been urging people to make weather radios a cornerstone of their defense against severe weather for years.

But county emergency management officials say there are large coverage gaps in central and south-central Kansas -- including areas hammered by tornadoes recently. And tens of thousands of people are deprived of what one official calls "your first line of defense" against severe weather.

"You're talking about -- this is conservative -- more than 70,000 people without reliable coverage, and that's not acceptable," said Kathy Guy, assistant director of Butler County emergency management and homeland security. "That's a lot of people at risk."

False sense of security

A new Indiana law requires any mobile home installed after June 30 to be equipped with a weather radio. Local emergency management officials say a similar requirement would not work here.

"We don't have 100 percent coverage," Guy said.

The holes in coverage take on more significance, Guy and others said, because the radios are now used for more than severe weather.

Guy said Butler County authorities used the radios to alert the public when a large grass fire broke out on March 8, 2006.

Many officials now refer to them as "all-hazard radios" because they can be used to alert the public of numerous dangers -- including notifications in the event of terrorist attacks.

The Department of Homeland Security sent the radios to every school district in the country, Guy said, not realizing that "not everybody gets the coverage."

"You've got schools laboring under a false sense of security," she said, because signal strength is so weak that important warnings may not be received or understood.

Most of the gaps fall within a corridor stretching from Barber and Harper counties along the Oklahoma state line north to Barton and Pawnee counties, said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service's Wichita branch.

Counties within that corridor also include Reno, Kingman, Rice and Stafford. Among the cities with either weak or no weather radio coverage are Great Bend, Larned, Medicine Lodge, Stafford, St. John, Harper and Anthony.

Budget problems

Weather service officials say at least 95 percent of the nation's population has weather radio coverage, and budget constraints make further expansion of that coverage difficult.

"We're always looking to improve our service to areas that we can," said Mike Hudson, a spokesman for the weather service's central region office in Kansas City, Mo. "Anything that comes forward, if it fits in strategically with our plan, it will get due consideration."

The issue isn't just the up-front costs of installation, weather service officials said. There's also the continuing cost of maintaining the equipment.

The weather service dramatically expanded the number of transmitters around the country in the late '90s and early this decade, Hudson said. In Kansas, for example, the number of transmitters jumped from 10 to 29 in just a few years.

But Harper County doesn't have one.

"We've been trying right at 10 years to get one," said Mike Loreg, the county's emergency management director.

The signals in the county are so weak the radios rarely work, he said.

"It's got to be a very nice, sunshiny day," Loreg said. "When the clouds and the storms come through, you can not get it."

Harper County was hit repeatedly by tornadoes in 2004. Twelve homes were damaged or destroyed by one outbreak, Loreg said, and as many as 14 tornadoes were on the ground at the same time.

But county officials have not been able to find or finance a transmitter or a tower on which to put it. Rep. Todd Tiahrt's efforts to find federal funding for the project have come up empty so far.

"He's trying to make something happen," Tiahrt spokesman Chuck Knapp said. "It just hasn't been successful yet."

Strong Greensburg signal

Hoisington, which was struck by an F-4 tornado nearly a half-mile wide after sunset on April 21, 2001, is in Barton County, where officials say coverage is weak at best.

The tornado killed at least one person and injured more than 25 others.

Officials credited the residents for paying attention to televised warnings and seeking shelter quickly as the tornado hit.

The area around Greensburg, which was almost completely destroyed by a 1.7-mile wide tornado long after sunset on May 4, has a strong signal for weather radios. The tornado killed 10 people in Greensburg and injured dozens of others, but officials say the death toll could easily have been in the hundreds if early warnings hadn't been issued and residents hadn't taken safety precautions.

"A lot of us were saying, 'There but for the grace of God,' " Guy said of emergency management officials around the state.

Other options

Hayes said residents who live in areas where the signal is not always reliable can strengthen their reception by purchasing cable and an exterior antenna.

But they can also use other sources for severe weather alerts and information, such as local radio and television stations or the Internet.

"Make sure you never put your eggs all in one basket," Hudson said.

Studies have shown only about 3 percent of the population use weather radios -- primarily because people don't know how to program them and don't want to be awakened at night by alerts for neighboring areas.

Services have been developed in recent years that can send severe weather alerts to a subscriber's cell phone, and they are growing in popularity.

But emergency management officials say the radios are still an important tool to protect residents from their nightmare scenario: a large tornado bearing down on a sleeping city.

That happened to Evansville, Ind., on Nov. 6, 2005, when an F-3 tornado struck at 1:54 a.m. and killed 20 people -- among them 2-year-old C.J. Martin, after whom the new Indiana law has been named.

Many of the tornadoes in Kansas this year, including the one that struck Greensburg, touched down after sunset.

More than one touched down after midnight, officials have said. To presume that people in poorly served areas will be up watching television or on their computer at such hours, Guy said, "is just too big a risk to take."

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