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Rural Missouri Magazine

by Jim McCarty

When work is completed on a pair of Weather Radio transmitters in Moniteau and Ozark counties Missouri can claim to be the first state in the nation to provide its citizens with nearly 100 percent early warning coverage.

Missouri’s electric cooperatives played a big role in making it happen. When this project started in 1995 Missouri had 10 Weather Radio transmitters in place. For the most part, they delivered early warnings to residents of the state’s big cities. In a move that reminded many of the early days of electrification, rural people were forgotten when the money ran out.

Only 50 percent of Missouri’s population could receive life-saving warnings from the National Weather Service. Rural people who lived far from communities with warning sirens were really without any effective way to be notified in the event of an emergency.

One exception was a transmitter located in the Sikeston area that was installed on a radio tower owned by M&A Electric Power Cooperative. This public/private partnership became the model for nearly a decade’s work that led to today’s near-total coverage of the state.

Weather Radio is the National Weather Service’s term for a system of radio transmitters that can activate small personal receivers to warn of approaching bad weather. While commercial TV and radio stations carry the same warnings, Weather Radio receivers go one step further. Set to the alert mode, they can turn themselves on in the middle of the night with an ear-piercing alarm that would wake the dead.

In the event of a tornado, when seconds can mean the difference between life and death, a Weather Radio warning offers enough time to seek shelter — but only if you are in range of its signal.

It took a Palm Sunday disaster at an Alabama church to alert the nation to the lack of coverage for rural people. When then-Vice President Al Gore called for a new effort to complete the job, electric cooperatives in Missouri were the first to answer the challenge.

Missouri’s State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) worked with the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives and the National Weather Service to install the first transmitters under the new effort in 1996 at Bourbon and Summersville. These transmitters went on sites owned by Crawford and Intercounty electric co-ops, and the co-ops along with Show-Me Power also provided power, back-up generators and money for transmitters.

Others would quickly follow. In 1997 southeast Missouri electric cooperatives helped install transmitters near Doniphan, Cedar Mountain, Piedmont and Gideon. Three years later Northeast Missouri Electric Power Cooperative dedicated three 300-watt transmitters near Kahoka, Lancaster and LaPlata. The co-op, which supplies power to two Iowa co-ops as well, also installed three transmitters in southern Iowa.

Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative worked with U.S. Rep. JoAnn Emerson to secure funding for two more transmitters installed in 2000 near West Plains and Alton.

Southwest Missouri was next. On May 10, 2001, KAMO Electric Power Co-op and member systems Sac Osage and Osage Valley helped bring two 1,000-watt transmitters on-line at El Dorado Springs and Clinton. The Pettis County emergency manager was so delighted by the new coverage that he arranged a partnership with the local Radio Shack to offer a special on receivers. The store sold 2,000 radios in one month.

Before long Weather Radio came to Branson with the help of White River Valley Electric Cooperative.
The last step was the northwest corner. Transmitters were installed in four locations — Cameron, Carrollton, Trenton and Maryville with the assistance of area electric cooperatives. The Carrollton transmitter featured a new partner. Radio station KMZU provided tower space.

In April a new transmitter at Cape Girardeau paid for by Citizens Electric was dedicated. It will improve coverage for Cape and Perry counties. The last gaps in the coverage area should be filled when a new transmitter goes on-line at Gainesville, probably by the time you read this, and at Prairie Home in Moniteau County. SEMA is also working at plugging a coverage gap in the Ft. Leonard Wood area.

While 100 percent coverage is never going to be possible in the rugged terrain of the Ozarks, the completion of this great effort will get Missouri as close as possible to that goal. Future advances will bring early warnings to more and more people. Already the technology has improved so warnings can be issued for specific counties.

The warnings are in place. What remains to be done is to spread the word that Weather Radio has come to rural Missouri. Most of Missouri’s electric cooperatives donated receivers to schools, nursing homes and hospitals in their service areas.

Homeowners, too, need to purchase receivers and become familiar with how they work. The warning does no good if no one is listening.

Missouri’s electric cooperatives hope everyone in the state will purchase a Weather Radio receiver. Many co-ops are offering them for sale. They can also be purchased at Radio Shack and other electronics stores.

The cost is small. The savings measured in human lives can not be calculated.

 

 

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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