- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

HASKELL, ARK. (AP) - In a county where a quarter of the homes are mobile and in a state where deadly tornadoes often strike at night, a warning radio would seem a good investment _ especially when it’s offered for free.

But emergency workers are having a hard time handing out the radios, even among rural residents whose homes are far from the nearest warning siren.

“I suspect if something happened, I’d be saying different, but right now it’s not a priority,” Scott Ausbrooks said Tuesday outside the hardware store at Haskell, a community near the path of seven tornadoes since 1996.

Often a recent violent storm will prompt people to buy warning radios, but not always. Bruce Thomas, a meteorologist and spokesman for Midland Radio Corp., said the South and Midwest are the biggest markets for the radios _ but usually only after tragedies strike.

“The South is really becoming a much bigger place for weather radios,” Thomas said. “But nighttime events are what really trigger people to buy weather radios.”

Around Haskell, any resident can obtain a warning radio for free _ but few take advantage of a Saline County program funded by those who voluntarily add $5 to their tax bills. County Judge Lanny Fite said only 4,200 radios have been placed in his county’s 39,000 homes in the two years since the program started.

“I hope that when you move to Saline County, you also get a weather radio,” Fite said.

Doug Hethcox, whose mobile home at Sardis was damaged in a 2004 storm, used insurance money to purchase land and a new trailer 7 or 8 miles away from where the tornado struck. He still doesn’t have a warning radio but does live within a block of a tornado siren.

“I feel like the Lord sent a tornado, and through the damage of the tornado we were given this blessing… and I seriously don’t think the Lord would take all that he gave us away,” he said Wednesday. “If there’s another tornado then it will probably go around us, and if not then we will be joining the Lord.”

In February 2008, a tornado that was on the ground for 121 miles killed 13 in a path from Atkins to Highland, and last April 3, three tornadoes skipped through parts of Saline County. Midland sold 16,000 radios in the Little Rock area after the Saline County storms, Thomas said.

“We’re about to get another one because it saved our butt last year,” said Sam Wright, who had purchased a weather radio about a week before the April storms. His wife Mary called him to relay updates about the storm as he ran an errand.

In a state that averages 26 tornadoes a year _ and had 80 in 2008 _ automated ear-piercing weather radios should be as common as fire alarms, forecasters say. Most fatalities nationwide last year were in mobile homes (44 percent); U.S. Census Bureau data show that mobile homes make up about 13 percent of Arkansas homes.

Ausbrooks said he is content using the TV to track foul weather. The Harmony Grove High School science teacher says he pays close attention when he hears bad weather is on the way and stays tuned in for updates.

“That TV radar now is so good I can tell if it’s going to come to the left or the right of me,” he said. “Now, if it happened at night, I don’t know what I’d do. Then that would be a problem.”

Before last year’s storms, six of the previous seven Arkansans killed by a tornado were sleeping when the storm hit, National Weather Service meteorologist John Robinson said. Some weather radios have a feature that turn on the radio automatically when a watch or warning is broadcast.

Monitoring the weather by TV is “fine until you go to bed, and then you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Robinson said. “Once you turn the TV off, the TV doesn’t wake you up.”

Preliminary statistics from the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., show there were 1,691 tornados across the U.S. last year and that 126 people were killed _ twice the national average for the previous 10 years.


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