Friday, September 22, 2000

Few warned of twister

1 siren sounded late, 4 others not at all

By Tom O'Neill and Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        XENIA, Ohio — While residents began to rise Thursday from a tornado that killed one, injured at least 80 and destroyed 48 homes, questions emerged about the inadequacies of an emergency-siren system that was mostly silenced by a simple power outage.

[photo] This aerial view of a Xenia home shows the power of the tornado that blasted along June Drive and Drake Drive in Xenia Wednesday evening.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        There is no battery backup in the siren system here, a city leveled by a 1974 tornado that killed 33 and caused $400 million in damage.

        Compounding the problem was the fact that the National Weather Service never did issue a tornado watch or warning. By the time a tornado was actually seen, manual activation of Xenia's sirens was mostly ineffective — four of the city's five sirens had already been knocked out.

        There is money in the city's 2001 budget for an updated siren system that would include battery backup, Xenia Assistant City Manager Charlie Leonard said Thursday night.

        “I'm sure we'll be looking at that,” he added.

   • Kroger stores in Cincinnati and Dayton have set up a “customer roundup program” for donations to the Xenia tornado victims. Customers can make donations by rounding up their grocery bills to the next higher dollar, or more.
   • Cincinnati's chapter of the American Red Cross will forward donations to the Dayton chapter for people wanting to make financial contributions. Send money earmarked for the tornado victims to 720 Sycamore St., Cincinnati, 45202. To make credit card donations or to find out the status of family members, call 579-3000.
   • Disaster-trained or skilled trade persons who want to volunteer should call the Dayton chapter of the American Red Cross at (937) 222-6711. Call the same number to donate money.
   Forecasters say southwest Ohio could receive some rain minus the chance of severe weather this weekend.
   Today's temperature will be partly cloudy with a high in the upper 70s and a low near 60.
   “Saturday (will be) mostly cloudy with a 40 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. The high will be 75 to 80,” said Mike Gallagher, a hydro meteorologist technician with the National Weather Service in Wilmington.
   There's a chance of showers on Sunday, with a high in the 70s and a low near 60.
   On Monday, temperatures will be partly cloudy with a low in the mid-40s and a high near 60. Similar temperatures are expected Tuesday.
   F0 - F1: Weak tornadoes. Usually last 1 to 10 minutes with wind speeds less than 113 mph. Accounts for 70 percent of all tornadoes, less than 5 percent of tornado deaths.
    F2 - F3: Strong tornadoes. Might last 20 minutes or longer with wind speeds 113 mph to 206 mph. Accounts for 29 percent of all tornadoes, nearly 30 percent of tornado deaths.
    F4 - F5: Violent tornadoes. Might last an hour or more with wind speeds greater than 206 mph. Accounts for 1 percent of all tornadoes but nearly 70 percent of tornado deaths.

        Some residents along June Drive and Drake Drive, where some homes were extensively damaged, said there was no siren Wednesday night.

        “We would have heard it,” said David Ellison, whose home on June Street sustained heavy damage. “But none went off.”

        The damage from Wednesday night's tornado: 48 homes destroyed, 50 more with severe damage, 75 with minor damage; 14 businesses destroyed, seven more with major damage and three with minor damage.

        A second tornado swept through Delaware and Licking counties in central Ohio. Its damage and injuries were less severe.

        In Xenia, some residential neighborhoods were devastated. Trees were uprooted, cars were turned over and homes were flattened. It looked eerily similar to the killer 1974 twister.

        In downtown Xenia, however, damage was limited primarily to the power outage that forced police officers to direct motorists under darkened traffic lights.

        For those who escaped the fury of Wednesday's surprise storm, Thursday was a day to count blessings and start over.

        John Moore has lived in his home on June Drive since June. He was driving his van home from the Dairy Mart nearby when he saw the funnel cloud dip from the sky. The wind shook his van. He raced home.

        His wife and son heard a tree crack and someone outside screaming. They headed for the bathroom. When Mr. Moore arrived, his wife and son were shaken, but otherwise all right.

        On Thursday morning, family and neighbors came by to help clean up and salvage what could be saved from the handful of homes on June Drive that were devastated.

        Mr. Moore carried things from his house and loaded them in a pickup truck, while his sister, Jean Vinters of Dayton, Ohio, swept up glass from the floor. The back of the house was gone, bedrooms exposed, another corner torn away.

        “It's time to clean up and start over,” said Mr. Moore.

        The twister also threw a kink in wedding plans made by Brian Ryerson and his fiancee, Nikki Massie. They planned to marry in the Xenia Church of God on Oct. 7, but it was one of four Xenia churches damaged by the storm.

        The Red Cross set up emergency shelters at three schools, but only two remained open Thursday afternoon, at Central Middle School and Cox Elementary School.

        Dave Mullins, shelter manager at Central in downtown Xenia, said only five families spent the night and about a dozen people came in Thursday for food.

        Most of those left homeless were staying with friends or relatives.

        But the warning system's failure remained a key issue for many residents Thursday.

        After the April 1999 tornado that ripped through Greater Cincinnati, killing four, Hamilton County and several local communities spent $400,000 updating the county's emergency-warning siren system. Four sirens didn't go off because of power failures, but now, all new sirens have battery backups.

        As of Thursday night, 12,000 residences in the Xenia area were still without electricity, down from 50,000 Wednesday night, officials said.

        None of the five sirens in this community about an hour northeast of Cincinnati was activated in time because radar at the National Weather Service only detected signs of a severe thunderstorm, for which it had issued several earlier warnings.

        Those warnings go out to residents through the media, but Xenia policy is that no sirens are activated until a tornado is sighted, Mr. Leonard explained.

        Xenia's sirens, which are manually activated, weren't sounded until two residents called police with a report of a funnel cloud, he said.

        By then, several areas were without electricity, and four of the five sirens never went off, said Mr. Leonard.

        “It just happened so quickly,” said Mr. Leonard. “But if (meteorologists) don't have any radar indication, they wouldn't alert us.”

        Mary Jo Parker, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, said Wednesday's storm developed too quickly and moved too fast to issue a tornado warning.

        “This storm didn't exhibit the classic signature on radar that indicates a tornado,” she said.

        “We issued the severe thunderstorm warning for Greene County at 7:07 p.m.,” she said. “There was some damage in the southwestern part of the county at about 7:15 p.m.”

        The tornado, classified as an F-4, hit Xenia between 7:20 and 7:30 p.m. F-4 designation has winds between 207 and 260 mph and can cause “devastating” damage to structures.

        The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in Xenia this afternoon to begin assessing the damage. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft arrived Thursday and pledged that the state would offer any assistance possible.

        One man in his 50s, whom officials have yet to identify, was killed at the Greene County Fairgrounds. He was there for an antique festival and ran to his car when the storm hit, Mr. Leonard said.

        A tree 3 feet in diameter fell on his car. The man's wife was in critical condition at Miami Valley Hospital, Mr. Leonard said.

        “I just hope there are no more fatalities,” said Diane Harlow of Hamlet Drive, whose home was undamaged. “You can replace things, but not people.”

        Mrs. Harlow was injured and her home destroyed in the 1974 tornado, but she chose to rebuild.

        “We lost everything in '74,” she recalled. “I just stood there in the kitchen and watched everything go. The roof, everything.”

        But as was the case then, residents again came together, assisting in the cleanup.

        “It's sad to say,” Mrs. Harlow said, “but it does bring people together.”

        Staff writer Earnest Winston contributed to this report

Complete coverage of the Xenia tornado:
Gallery of photographs from the scene
The path of the twister: Infographic
- Few warned of twister
7-year-old helped others dig out of smashed church
Psychologist: Fear of storms can be dealt with
Spared in 1974, but not in 2000
The Enquirer's special 25th anniversary coverage of the Tornado of 1974

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