Thursday, April 5, 2012

One month before the Fort Worth tornado -

In 2000, Councilman Clyde Picht wrote a letter to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  At the time he was the only one in town advocating for emergency sirens.  The mayor, city council and Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial Board all were against spending money on sirens that protect people.

What was he basing his position on?  History. It tends to repeat itself. 

A month after Clyde wrote the letter, the tornado hit.  Lives were lost, just like he said. 

Currently, this mayor, council and paper disagree with what Clyde says about the Trinity River Vision.  What's the next Editorial Board going to say? 

Clyde's comment after rereading the commentary he wrote in 2000 - 

It’s too bad we had to wait for the disaster we knew was coming before we made a decision to upgrade our warning system.

Sounds familiar.  The following will too, read about Fort Worth, twelve years ago, before the tornado.

Two million for warning sirens?  A bargain at twice the price!
            When German bombers attacked London during the Second World War they lacked the precision guidance of today's weapons. On the other hand, the British radar showed only the general direction the bombers traveled so throughout the city air raid sirens wailed to warn the people of impending attack.

                Now, sixty years later, the National Weather Service has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in high tech equipment that can tell with a degree of precision the path a tornado will follow. The detection of severe weather is in the 21st century but the Fort Worth warning sirens are more suitable for the Battle of Britain. Our sirens will blare throughout our 250 square mile city, if they blare at all. Because of their age replacement parts are not readily available. Ten to fifteen percent of the system fails when tested, and on occasion, the whole system has been known to fail. With the rapid growth of our city some areas on the developing fringe are totally without warning sirens.

                Some things are fact. We live at the Southwest end of what weather experts call "Tornado Ally." Tornadoes have caused massive destruction and loss of life to the West, South, and East of Fort Worth. Severe weather caused major destruction in Fort Worth, pelting us with hail the size of baseballs in 1980 and 1995. Weather experts say that we will be struck by a killer tornado similar to the one that raised havoc in Moore, Oklahoma, last year. It's not a matter of whether, but when.

                In a recent commentary (2/21/00), Star-Telegram writer Jack Z. Smith reported that as a consequence of the Moore disaster that city is going to double the number of sirens. In my own conversation with Emergency Management Director, Gayland Kitch, he told me that even though the tornado occurred during rush hour, with plenty of radio and TV coverage, some residents didn't take cover until they heard the warning sirens. Smith reports Kitch said he feels that sirens help save lives and that Fort Worth would be wise to invest in them.

                Some things are fiction. According to Smith, the Mayor and some Council members feel that warnings sirens are not worth the $2-$3 million cost. They think radio, television, Internet, cell phones, E-mail and weather radios will substitute for sirens. It is not uncommon to have power outages during severe weather. With the power outages go your radio, television, Internet, and E-mail. Few computer owners are foolish enough to operate them during thunderstorms without UPS. A battery-powered radio will still work, provided the batteries are good and you have it with you. Cell phones might work if you've got them, but they don't always perform well even in good weather. First-hand reports from Oklahoma demonstrate that cell phones fail when tornadoes are near. Weather radios, like cell phones, are fine if everybody has one. Not everyone can afford or will want to buy a weather radio for $40-$80 (cost according to Smith). Most people probably wouldn't have one nearby during severe weather, in any case. Twenty-two people lost their lives when tornadoes hit Georgia in mid February. They came at night when folks were tucked safely in their beds. Or so they thought. Computers, cell phones, radios - all off. 

                A state of the art warning system has advantages that all the aforementioned devices don't have. The per capita cost is very nominal. A system will last many years and perform with high reliability. It can be used to warn residents in the path of severe weather without alarming those in safer areas. It can be localized to warn of hazardous spills on freeways and rail lines. It has a voice capability to describe circumstances that may require residents to take cover or remain in their homes and can warn children playing outside. With correct placement they are likely to be heard inside the home as well as outside.

                Lives will be lost in the event of a major tornado transiting Tarrant County. Adequate warning will save many lives, which might otherwise be lost. Ironically, the City Council was presented a proposal by the Fire Chief for the 1998 Capital Improvement Program that would have replaced the current warning system. The council turned it down and chose to use some of that money for park improvement. Pity the poor folks in the park who might be whisked away to Oz because they don't own a cell phone or weather radio, and live in a city where they are expected to take more "personal responsibility" for their safety.

                Like the unfortunate homeowner who installs a burglar alarm after the family heirlooms have been stolen, the City of Fort Worth will some day upgrade its woefully deficient disaster warning system after a major storm wreaks death and destruction. It willstill be cheap at twice the monetary price but what's the value of a life?

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