Sunday, January 09, 2000

New sirens saved lives in Owensboro




BY KRISTINA GOETZ
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        OWENSBORO, Ky. — Officials credit recently installed sirens and their preparations for possible Y2K problems with helping the city recover from a tornado that damaged more than 2,200 homes and injured 15 people.

        “We spent quite a bit of time preparing for the Y2K event,” said Owensboro City Manager Ron Payne. “It was a good exercise to go through for any disaster. Lo and behold, a few days later a twister rips through our city.

        “That preparation helped us, thank goodness.”

        Several months ago, the city spent about $100,000 installing 12 new weather warning sirens.

        Mr. Payne said he believes that the placement of the sirens is the reason there were no fatalities and why only 15 people received minor injuries in the Jan. 3 tornado. Gov. Paul Patton declared a state of emergency and Federal Emergency Management Agency teams arrived Thursday to help assess the damage and determine whether the community qualifies for federal aid.

        The twister brought 180 mph winds, damaging 2,277 homes, including 101 that were destroyed. Every building at Kentucky Wesleyan College was damaged, and early estimates are that it will take $4.5 million to $5 million to fix them.

        Mr. Payne said some preliminary damage assessments are complete. The tornado caused $15.5 million in damage to public property, including $3.4 million to utilities and $1.6 million to clean up debris. No private-property damage estimates are available.

        “They're ballpark numbers, but they're good numbers,” Mr. Payne said.

        The insurance industry is already painting a grim picture. In the first 48 hours after the disaster, the top 20 insurance agencies in the area had already processed 6,000 claims. One agency reported at least $11 million in losses for Kentucky Wesleyan and the county and city school systems, said Roger Snell, a spokesman for the state insurance department.

        In this city of 54,000 known for its barbecue and religious roots, there were signs residents would pull through despite their losses.

        Mail carriers brought the mail, newspaper deliveries continued and donations, volunteers and support flowed in.

        As residents in some of the harder-hit areas returned to salvage some belongings, the city announced a plan for cleanup. All public works employees will work from dawn until dusk until the neighborhoods are cleared of debris. Owensboro Municipal Utilities employees will work 18-hour shifts until the estimated 2,500 customers without power can return home. At one time, 8,000 homes were without power.

        All power may be restored as soon as tonight.

        “OMU started in 1900,” said Bob Carper, general manager of the utility company. “For 100 years we've been building facilities in this community.”

        Because of the storm, much of it must be rebuilt.

        Church groups came from as far away as Lexington and Alexandria to help. Daviess County Fiscal Court coordinated their efforts.

        About 65 people from Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief served chicken and dumplings to displaced residents at the local First Baptist Church and organized to find out what kind of help people needed.

        “We cut trees, we clean up, we feed folks,” said volunteer Patrick Neal of First Twelve Mile Baptist Church in California, Ky. “If we're cutting down a tree and someone wants to talk, we put down the saw and listen. Many of us have training in grief counseling.”

        Fellow volunteer Terry Shinkle of Belleview Baptist Church in Belleview, Ky., added: "We give them a shoulder to cry on and cry with them.”

        Local churches opened their doors, advertising a warm place to sleep and a hot meal. Others spread their congregations out across the city to saw broken tree limbs, rake yards and haul garbage.

        “Galatians 6:2 says to bear one another's burdens,” said Angus McKinley, an associate pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Owensboro. “That's what we're doing.”

        Still others reminded people to pray.

        Construction companies and contractors also donated their time and resources. Hazek Construction Co. in Henderson donated the use of equipment and four men.

        “We've done a lot of work here in Owensboro, and we're pretty friendly with a lot of these people,” said Ronnie Morris, superintendent of the company. “We called the city and asked if they needed anything.

        “They really appreciate it.”

        Wal-Mart became a drop-off center for donations. Thriftway Lumber sold supplies at contractors' prices and delivered them free while citizens from across the region brought in baby bottles, diapers, mattresses and clothes.

        “Y2K was nothing compared to this,” said Jerel Craig, as he looked at his roofless house. “I don't think we could have prepared for this.”

        His neighbor, Brian Sutton, said the neighborhood, one of the hardest-hit, will pull through.

        “It might be what God had in mind: to come through here, not to hurt too many people and to get everybody to pull together,” he said.

        Mr. Craig added: “And it might wake people up a little bit and get them back in church, hopefully a few anyway.”

       



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