Tale of two cities: Indiana siren coverage varies greatly

Residents in downtown Kokomo didn't hear anything during the test.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Indianapolis - Despite bright sunshine and blue skies, tornado sirens blared across Indiana this morning as communities participated in a statewide drill to prepare for severe weather season.

But while sirens screamed throughout Indianapolis, downtown Kokomo was quiet.

Kokomo is one of many communities still unprotected by tornado sirens. The city does not own a single siren, which explains why many residents in Indiana's fifteenth largest city didn't even realize the state was holding a tornado drill.

"I didn't hear much of anything," said resident Ed Grant, who was also unaware that Kokomo has no emergency warning sirens. "Considering the seriousness of tornados and how many we get, I think it should be a big priority."

From cities like Kokomo to more rural areas across the state, tornado sirens are considered a luxury many towns simply cannot afford, meaning hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers don't hear a warning siren when severe weather approaches.

It's a problem 13 Investigates first showed in 2006 after tornados and strong winds pounded central Indiana. Eyewitness News' "Cause for Alarm" investigation revealed tornado sirens in Indianapolis failed to work thousands of times -- many were broken beyond repair -- and about 200,000 people in the metro area lived where there were no sirens at all.

Since then, things have gotten much better -- at least, in some places.

In the 9-county Indianapolis metro area, communities have added 68 sirens and at least a dozen more will be installed by the end of summer. The 416 current sirens represent a 20% increase from the 348 metro-area sirens available in 2006.

During Marion County's tornado drill Wednesday morning, the siren system worked perfectly, and it should. Following WTHR's investigation, Marion County spent millions to replace or upgrade every siren and to fill in dead zones where sirens couldn't be heard.

"We now have 168 sirens in the ground. They cover 97% of the county," said Marion County Emergency Management coordinator Debbi Fletcher. "We're doing pretty well, much better than the majority of the state because we are so densely populated. We want to make sure we can notify people."

While Marion County has 168 sirens, Shelby County has just nine. That's two more than it had in 2006 but still leaves just nine tornado sirens to cover 413 square miles.

Brown County doesn't have any tornado sirens at all. Officials there say the county's sparse population and hilly terrain are not conducive to emergency warning sirens.

Other counties say they simply cannot afford it.

"We're just trying to survive," said Howard County Emergency Management Director Larry Smith. He estimated the county would need to spend nearly $500,000 to buy enough sirens to cover all of Howard County, which has been hit hard by layoffs and declining revenues. Kokomo is the county seat.

But some towns are finding a way to get the sirens they need. Monrovia, for example, just received three new sirens that will be installed by early April. The town of about 1,000 people set aside $65,000 to buy the sirens, which many residents consider essential.

"We didn't have any and we feel we're in the area some call ‘Tornado Alley.' That's why we think it's very important we do this for our citizens," explained Monrovia town council president Bob Marley. "We're excited about them and this time of year, everyone starts thinking about storms."

Emergency management officials say it's important to remember that tornado sirens are only meant to be heard when you're outside. When you're indoors -- especially at night when you're sleeping – you should not rely on a tornado siren to provide adequate warning.

"We really want people to have a NOAA weather radio because that's far more reliable when you're inside," said Fletcher. "It will literally wake you up to tell you severe weather is coming."

WTHR is partnering with Walgreens to make NOAA weather radios easy to get. Check wthr.com in the coming weeks for details about the promotion.

March 19th update

Since our story aired, several Howard County residents have raised doubts about the accuracy of our report. We followed up on their questions. Here is an update.

13 Investigates again spoke with Howard County Emergency Management Director Larry Smith and Kokomo City Attorney Derek Sublette about sirens in the city of Kokomo and throughout Howard County. The city of Kokomo does not own or operate any outdoor severe weather warning sirens.

This afternoon, the city attorney confirmed there are no sirens in Kokomo. He said the Kokomo Common Council turned down a proposal to spend $150,000 of economic development taxes on sirens for the city. He said it was a decision based on how best to distribute the resources the city has and outdoor sirens are not the main priority at this time.

Other towns in Howard County do have severe weather sirens. There are 2 sirens in Russiaville, 2 sirens in Greentown and the Taylor Township Volunteer Fire Department operates a siren in Indian Heights. Haynes International has 3 industrial sirens at its facility for use in case of an industrial emergency at the plant. Those sirens could be used for a weather emergency if needed. But those sirens have a smaller sound radius compared to most tornado sirens.

See a list of maps showing coverage by county.