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Rural Missouri Magazine

Storm Warnings
Cooperative effort brings Weather Radio
to southwest Missouri

by Jim McCarty

On March 27, 1994, a series of tornadoes struck the southeastern United States killing 43 people, including 20 gathered for Palm Sunday services in an Alabama church.

The National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for that area nearly 15 minutes before the tornado struck. Unfortunately, those who perished never heard the warning. They had gathered in a rural area out of range of the warning city dwellers heard on Weather Radio.

Larry Krudwig, retired technical specialist for the National Weather Service, speaks during dedication of two new Weather Radio transmitters donated by electric cooperatives in Southwest Missouri. Standing with Krudwig are Jon McClure, manager of Osage Valley Electric Co-op and Ben Harper, manager of Sac-Osage Electric.

When the "voice of the National Weather Service" was completed in the late 1970s, funds dried up before most rural areas were served. Population centers would get the warnings. But just like in the days before rural electrification, rural people were left out.

It took the tragedy in Alabama to focus attention on the gaps in weather warning coverage. Then-Vice President Al Gore called for a public-private partnership to finish the long-dormant project.

Missouri's electric cooperatives were the first to heed the call.

Seven years later Missouri has moved another significant step closer to the goal of 100 percent coverage for weather warnings. On May 11, electric cooperatives in southwest Missouri helped dedicate two new Weather Radio transmitters that will provide coverage for Cedar, Henry, St. Clair, Vernon and surrounding counties.

They were joined by officials from the National Weather Service, the state and federal emergency management agencies and county officials to celebrate the historic event. At the appropriate time warning tones were broadcast across the Weather Radio band.

Ben Harper, manager of Sac-Osage Electric Co-op, Jon McClure, manager of Osage Valley Electric Co-op, and Chris Cariker, manager of KAMO Power took turns speaking over the network.

Their voices went out over two transmitters recently donated and installed at electric co-op facilities, one at the KAMO district office in El Dorado Springs and the other at Shawnee Mound in Henry County. The event capped years of work involving the three electric co-ops, the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, Associated Electric Cooperative, the State Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service.

"The electric cooperative involvement was generated by some very tragic events," said Frank Stork, executive vice president of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. "After that it was decided we needed to get these warning systems set up in rural areas. The electric cooperatives stepped forward and said, 'We think we can do that.' "

An early meeting with the State Emergency Management Agency showed co-ops already had radio towers in areas that were natural locations for new Weather Radio sites. So the electric cooperatives offered free use of tower space and upped the ante by purchasing and powering the transmitters as well.

"Can you imagine what this would cost if you had to build the tower?" asked Buck Katt, assistant director for SEMA. "The key to success in the state of Missouri has been the electric co-ops."

Katt estimates 90 percent of the state now has Weather Radio coverage. That compares with just 50 percent coverage two years ago when a flurry of new transmitters were donated by electric cooperatives.

The new transmitters bring the total donated by electric co-ops to 11.

And the job's not done. A third southwest Missouri transmitter, serving the Branson area, will soon operate thanks to the efforts of White River Valley Electric Co-op. Citizens Electric in Ste. Genevieve will soon bring a new one on line. NW Electric Power Co-op, based in Cameron, has new transmitters in the works for Cameron, Carrollton, Trenton and Maryville.

"A project like this doesn't just happen," said Cariker. "When you get your electric bill stop and remember that these electric co-ops do a lot more for you in these communities than just deliver electricity."

These new sites will improve safety for thousands of rural people, said Larry Krudwig, a technical specialist with the National Weather Service before his recent retirement.

"I have a passion for this program because I firmly believe that even though you have the most perfect warning in the world, that warning is of no value unless those who are at risk know about that warning and as a result do something to protect themselves," he said.

Sac-Osage Electric Co-op already plans to donate receivers to area schools, emergency response organizations, senior centers, nursing homes and hospitals. Osage Valley Electric's board will consider similar steps at its next board meeting.

The receivers are unique in that they can sound a piercing alarm when severe weather threatens. Unlike other radio and TV broadcasts, Weather Radio can save your life by waking you up in time to seek shelter.

New technology allows the warnings to pinpoint individual counties.

"We look forward to knowing that when we issue a warning there is a real chance that someone out there will hear that warning and be protected," Krudwig said.

For more information about Weather Radio check out the National Weather Service Web site at www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/.

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