More Cause For Alarm

A new siren is installed in Monrovia, where the town chair says "We made it happen."
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Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Two years after Indiana lawmakers passed a law to better warn and protect Hoosiers from severe weather, nothing has changed. A WTHR investigation finds confusion, complacence and finger pointing is getting in the way of safety, putting thousands of Hoosiers families at potential risk.

From Nappanee to Evansville, in recent years Indiana has endured death and destruction from springtime tornadoes. But the state's most infamous twister may be the Palm Sunday tornado that ripped through Howard County 45 years ago.

Larry Smith was there.

"I lost a relative in 1965 when the tornado came I know what it's like. I've been there. I've done it," Smith said. "It's gonna give you the emptiest feeling and helpless feeling you'll have in your life because there's nothing you can do to stop a tornado."

Smith is now Howard County's emergency management director, and he admits the county has far fewer tornado sirens than he'd like.

While Russiaville, Greentown and other small towns in Howard County each have several sirens, the county's largest city has not installed any. Kokomo, which is ranked as Indiana's fourteenth largest city with more than 46,000 residents, does not own a single outdoor warning siren to warn residents of approaching storms.

"If we had an option to be able to get sirens, we would," Smith explained. "The outdoor warning sirens are good to have."

Kokomo is not alone.

Not a single siren

13 Investigates found towns all across Indiana that have no sirens to help protect their residents. In fact, there are entire counties that don't have sirens, either.

Brown County is one of them. Its largest town is Nashville, which has fewer than 1,000 residents. But more than a million visitors flock to Brown County each year to take advantage of its scenic parks and quaint shops, according to the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau. When severe weather heads towards the county, there are no sirens to warn them. The county's emergency management director doesn't expect that to change anytime soon.

"We don't have a whole lot of money to spend on anything," said Dallas Kelp. "We're a very rural community."

Kelp said Brown County currently uses a phone system to contact residents in the case of an emergency. But he says that system is ineffective when it comes to warning residents about quickly-approaching tornados.

"The last time we used the system, it took three days to get 100% saturation of the county. You need a ten-minute warning time max [for a tornado] and three days isn't going to get the job done," he said.

Emergency management directors in Brown, Howard and other counties across Indiana told WTHR that funding for outdoor warning sirens simply isn't available.

"There's just not a lot of grant money out there for sirens," said Kelp.

"The state says there's no grants available," said Smith.

"There's no money out right now that I'm aware of for sirens," said Montogomery County EMA director Fred Davis.

While that may be the perception, the reality is very different.

Millions available

Last year alone, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave Indiana $11.6 million in State Homeland Security (SHS) Grants. Those funds can be used to purchase new outdoor warning sirens, but none of Indiana's 92 county emergency management offices did that. Instead, at the direction of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, most of the grants were directed to police and fire departments for radios and laptop computers.

By comparison, Kentucky recently used $328,578 of its grant money to purchase outdoor warning sirens. Five separate communities in Kentucky got sirens from SHS grants in 2009, according to Michael Embry, communications coordinator for the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security.

"I think it's probably a trend for the future because there's definitely a need," Embry said.

Last year, Ohio provided $1.2 million of its federal grant money for sirens. Much of that is going to Hamilton County, Ohio, which is using the money to buy 141 new outdoor warning sirens that will replace old sirens throughout the Cincinnati area.

"Frankly, if the homeland security money was not available, we would not be replacing sirens," said Bary Lusby, Hamilton County's emergency management operations manager. "We know warning is certainly a capability that state homeland security funds can be used for."

Many emergency management leaders in Indiana are not aware of that.

"Nobody told me money is available, and I've been asking for it for the past two or three years," said Smith. "I asked down there in the [Indiana Department of Homeland Security] grants division whether or not there was any grant money to come down from FEMA to be used for sirens and they told me then there wasn't any money available. They said there was no grants there for sirens."

Other counties do realize SHS can be used to purchase sirens, but they say the state won't give them the money.

"Hurt and betrayed"

"It can be extremely frustrating to deal with the state," said Dave McDowell, emergency management director in Carroll County. "Working with them is always a learning experience."

McDowell asked to use his county's portion of federal grant money for sirens after storms caused massive flooding that trapped residents in their homes in 2008. The proposed sirens would have been used to warn families about both tornados and floods, which are a frequent problem for residents living along the Tippecanoe River. He says the Indiana Department of Homeland Security turned down the request.

"I felt let down, hurt and betrayed," McDowell recalls. "I mean, how much more obvious does it get that you need help? But if they don't agree with what your county is doing or have other priorities, then you're out of luck."

McDowell said he had to "work around" IDHS to get the sirens his county needed. By partnering with the Eel River Indian tribe, Carroll County was able to secure a different grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that paid for three outdoor warning sirens. Two years later, McDowell is still frustrated about a system that, he believes, is broken.

"It's hard to point the finger at one person because it's a system-wide failure that's typical of government," he said.

When it comes to sirens and the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, failure comes as little surprise. The agency seems to have little interest in outdoor warning sirens – even though state law requires it.

Ignoring the law

In 2008, Indiana lawmakers ordered the Indiana Department of Homeland Security to establish rules on tornado sirens so it can "assess the number, location, and condition of existing severe weather warning sirens in each county in Indiana" and "determine the need for additional sirens in order to ensure comprehensive severe weather warning siren coverage for all Indiana residents."

According to Senate Enrolled Act 334, that was supposed to be done by January 1 of this year. But it never happened, and an agency spokesman says he doesn't really see any point.

"I'm not sure there would be [any benefit]," said IDHS communications manager John Erickson. "That's a local issue and the locals are working on that."

But 13 Investigates found many local communities are not working on siren issues and have no idea which neighborhoods are covered by sirens and which ones are not.

13 Investigates requested siren coverage maps from counties throughout central Indiana. Many of the coverage maps provided by emergency management offices are hand-drawn, incomplete documents that show little detail. Some county emergency management directors told WTHR they do not have a siren coverage map and do not keep track of siren locations.

The emergency management director in Tipton County told WTHR that, even if he did have a coverage map, "it's none of your business," and another EMA director said he prefers not to share the location of his county's outdoor warning sirens for security reasons.

Under Indiana's two-year-old siren law, counties can ask IDHS for help in creating a siren coverage map but, in the past two years, that hasn't happened either -- not even once.

"We have had as of yet no counties come forward on that," Erickson said. He said some counties may be nervous to ask for help because, if they do, the law requires extensive research and planning, and if IDHS recommends additional sirens for their county, the recommendation would be binding – and potentially very expensive.

"In financially challenging times, the message we're receiving is that local entities don't want to begin the process if recommendations, or the process itself, could lead to financial burdens," said Erickson.

Waiting for nothing

State homeland security officials say they won't pass any rules about tornado sirens or figure out where all of the state's sirens are until they receive guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"FEMA is currently developing standards for a comprehensive public warning system and is expected to release additional information on those standards and compliant vendors later this year. IDHS will not move to finalize these rules until FEMA provides its guidance to better ensure system interoperability. This information will be valuable for us to proceed for purposes of coordination," explained Erickson.

But state officials may not understand what they are waiting for.

According to FEMA spokesman Scott McConnell, the standards now being developed by his agency are aimed at "strengthening and modernizing the nation's radio, television, and mobile device alerting" to expand the nation's Emergency Alert System. "It's important to note that these standards generally are for broadcast purposes rather than for use with sirens," McConnell told WTHR. "Weather alert siren decisions remain issues better determined by state and local emergency management authorities."

That means IDHS has chosen not to implement siren rules required by law because it is waiting for guidance from Washington that it is not going to receive.

"As a citizen, as a senator, I am very disappointed by this," said Senator Brent Waltz (R – Greenwood), author of Indiana's siren law. "I would have hoped we would have been able to move more quickly. Many citizens think they are protected by warning sirens and they're not, and that was the reason for the legislation in the first place."

Moving forward

Towns like Monrovia, Crawfordsville and Bloomington are not waiting for the state to take action on outdoor weather sirens. Each of those communities recently used tax dollars from their local budgets to buy new sirens.

"We didn't have any sirens ... and we're in the area some call tornado alley," said Monrovia town chairman Bob Marley. "That why we feel it's very important to do this for our citizens."

Officials in Kokomo say they don't have the money to buy sirens right now. In the meantime, the city relies on local radio stations, television stations and a paging system to help warn residents about severe weather. The paging system sends a direct message to some local businesses, nursing homes, schools and hospitals. Some factories in Kokomo have industrial sirens that can also be activated in emergencies. Smith says Howard County will again explore the availability of federal grants to help Kokomo get sirens.

"If the money is there, then I'll go after it. I just need to know where," he said.

Get a weather radio!

Emergency management officials across the state say all-hazard weather radios are residents' best protection against severe weather. Unlike tornado sirens, weather radios are intended to alert residents who are indoors and sleeping, and they provide specific information about an imminent threat, including instructions on how to respond. And because the radios receive a direct message from the National Weather Service, they are the fastest way to learn of oncoming storms.

IDHS recently purchased thousands of weather radios to distribute to county emergency management agencies, but Erickson says they have not yet arrived. In recent years, the state has distributed an average of 5 weather radios to each county per year, but that number could increase to as many as 80 weather radios per county in 2010.

If you would like to purchase your own all-hazard weather radio at a discounted price, WTHR has partnered with Walgreens to make thousands available throughout central Indiana. They are available at Walgreens stores while supplies last, and a portion of each sale will be donated to the American Red Cross.

Central Indiana Emergency Management Agency contact list

Click on your county to see tornado siren coverage. Please note that clicking will open a large PDF file which may take a few seconds to load.