Cape looking at storm-warning options

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Severe storms around the area this year have once again focused attention on warning systems that might prevent injuries or loss of life.

Jackson was hard hit by a tornado in early May. More recently, straight-line winds of over 100 mph crippled Memphis, where several thousand residents are still without power two weeks after the devastating storm.

Over the years, other storms have hit nearby. Cape Girardeau itself has experienced tragic death and destruction from tornadoes and floods.

One thing Cape Girardeau doesn't have is a storm-warning system. The city made an attempt at a siren system several years ago, but it was dismantled because it was considered ineffective and too costly.

But warning systems have come a long way since the days of directional sirens that could only be heard if they were pointed at you.

One example of the latest technology is on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University, which put up seven warning towers on the main campus a year and a half ago.

Atop each tower is an omnidirectional sound system that projects either a piercing wail that can be clearly heard indoors several blocks away or informational announcements being read from either of the system's control centers.

One command center is at the university's Department of Public Safety, and the other is in the basement of Dempster Hall.

One possibility being considered by city officials is linking with the university system to provide warning towers across the city.

An engineering study several years ago found it would take about 15 such towers, but there's a possibility effective warnings could be heard with fewer towers, thanks to new and more effective technology.

A distinct advantage of a city-university cooperative effort would be having one command center when storms approach Cape Girardeau. And the city wouldn't have the additional expense of yet another command center of its own.

The biggest barrier, of course, is the cost of an adequate warning system. The university spent $145,000 on its system, and to blanket the rest of the city would cost about double that amount. There's a possibility of federal grants that might offset some of that expense.

One consideration is whether or not any expense for a warning system would actually result in widespread alerts for residents. Would the warnings be heard inside homes where central air conditioning and television sets drown out much of the sound from the outdoors?

These are questions, along with cost and how to pay for it, that are being addressed by the city now. Obviously, good answers need to be found for all such questions -- such as: Would such a system really save lives?

No system can guarantee that everyone will be properly warned of serious storms (and other potential dangers as well). It's human nature in areas where tornadoes are frequently sighted to ignore even the most commonsensical and prudent safeguards such as taking shelter.

But the potential for saving lives and injuries is great enough that a modern, high-tech warning system deserves full and deliberate consideration.

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