Saturday, April 10, 1999

Sirens worked, but some slept through

One area said warning was late

Cincinnati Enquirer

        It was a baby's cry and not the blare of a siren that woke Jim Martin moments before Friday's deadly tornado ripped through his Sycamore Township neighborhood.

        Mr. Martin's 3-year-old son, Robby, was stirred by pounding rain against his window just before 5 a.m.

        Shortly after heading to the kitchen to make Robby a bottle, Mr. Martin decided to gather his family and move everyone to the basement.

        Although the Martins' home wasn't damaged, the family didn't hear a civil defense siren meant to warn people of dangerous storms as they approach.

        There are 175 sirens scattered throughout Hamilton County, covering about 75 percent of the population. The sirens were activated at 4:55 a.m. Friday.

        Another 77 sirens are located in Butler, Warren and Clermont counties, where about 50 percent of the population in those areas is within earshot.

        The sirens, which blare a steady tone for three minutes, are equipped with a speaker that swivels atop its pole. The sirens have a 1-mile radius and are sounded only once during each tornado watch.

        All the sirens in a given county are activated at the same time during inclement weather, and are meant simply to warn people to take cover. They are activated by county officials when the National Weather Service issues the proper warnings.

        But the danger persists even after the sirens are shut down.

        Don Maccarone, director of the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency, said all Hamilton County sirens worked properly during the storm.

        “At this point, we have no indication of any failure to the siren system,” Mr. Maccarone said. “That's not to say people didn't hear them when they sounded. That's a whole other matter.”

        Mr. Maccarone said a regular monthly test of the siren system Wednesday showed all but two of the sirens working properly. Those two sirens were fixed before Friday's storm, he said.

        Mr. Maccarone said he hadn't had a chance to check with every municipality in the county Friday about the sirens.

        “We really need to get to some immediate needs,” Mr. Maccarone said. “The immediate message is that there is nothing to indicate that the system did not operate properly.”

        Although several of Mr. Martin's neighbors reported hearing a siren, at least one said it came too late.

        Julia Fleisch, who lives down the street from Mr. Martin on Cornell Road, said a “locomotive” sound — a classic description of the sound of a tornado — warned her to get into the basement.

        She and her husband heard the sirens as they emerged from their basement after 5 a.m.

        “We heard things hitting against the house,” Mrs. Fleisch said via telephone. “It sounded like a bowling ball hitting the roof. I thought some windows would be blown out.”

        At least a half-dozen people in Addyston, including town officials, firefighters and four people whose homes were destroyed, said the sirens there never sounded.

        Lt. Doc Humphreys of the Addyston Fire Department said: “There were no sirens (activated) in this part of Hamilton County, not here or in North Bend.”

        Mr. Maccarone said he thinks the power went off in Addyston, disabling the sirens.

        Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, who lives in Delhi Township, heard the sirens. Many of his neighbors did not, he said.

        “I've heard reports that the sirens did and didn't go off,” Mr. Bedinghaus said. “From my vantage point, we were notified. So the system seems to have worked pretty well, but it's not fool-proof.”

        Mr. Bedinghaus said it will be important for officials to look into the integrity of the system and make sure it worked properly.

        “We've got to make sure that in cases of fast-moving, natural disasters, that we do everything possible to notify people,” he said.

        Rick Niehaus, assistant chief with the Colerain Fire Department, said the sirens are equipped with two distinct tones:

        • A severe weather tone — a single steady blare — is activated when a tornado has been spotted and confirmed in the area, or when there is a combination of a tornado watch and severe thunderstorm warning in effect.

        • A tone which wavers up and down is sounded in the event of a nuclear attack.

        Mr. Niehaus said the sirens are meant as an outside warning system. He said people should invest in weather radios for their homes, which cost about $30, for more protection.

        People sleeping in their homes with windows shut might not hear the sirens, he said.

        “Homes are built very tight to exclude outdoor noise,” Mr. Niehaus said.

        Reporter Rachel Melcher contributed to this report.


Hope emerges from the rubble
- Sirens worked, but some slept through
Families flew from their beds
Bengals coach: 'God's hand on me'
Driver got upside-down trip on freeway median
Photographer encounters death, devastation
House is a cheap price to pay for life
Community safe, serene and vulnerable
In Addyston and Ripley County, some feel blessed just to be alive
Survivors eager to swap stories
Two died in field; two died on roads
Adjusters quick to arrive at disaster
To file a claim
Dealing with storm aftermath
Don't rush repairs after storm
Tips to picking a contractor
Kids need help to overcome grief, fears
Talking to kids
Phones, power out until Sunday
Rescue team did tough job
Storm could spur support for tax levy
Storms' memories linger after damage is repaired
Mobilization was instant
Tornado tales
TV/radio stations had reason to boast
Volunteers grab chain saws, mops as workers untangle wires
At least 7 businesses destroyed
911 calls reveal confusion, fear