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Official: Sirens aren't saviors when storms hit

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Old World Wisconsin
Significant damage from June 21 tornado closed Old World Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s outdoor museum near Eagle, Wis., in Waukesha County. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

Parts of La Crosse could have the same lack of sirens to warn of oncoming severe weather as reported in two Midwestern communities hit by tornadoes in the past week.

Two of La Crosse's nine tornado sirens - both early 1960s models - aren't in working order, city officials said.

It sets up a similar situation to Rochester, Minn., and Waukesha County in southeastern Wisconsin, where sirens failed to sound as severe storms swept in.

A West Avenue siren is permanently disabled, and workers are trouble-shooting problems with one on Diagonal Road on the city's south side, said Tony Hutchens, the assistant public works director who oversees city sirens.

While having new sirens would be ideal, the system isn't intended to be the primary means of warning people in an emergency, officials said.

"People have to realize that these sirens are available, but are not your best source," said Jay Loeffler, administrator of emergency services for La Crosse County. "We need to have people tune into the media to keep informed."

The sirens can be heard within about a 1/2-mile radius on nonwindy days, so the sound might not reach residents in some parts of the city, Hutchens said.

Sirens are tested monthly, most recently on June 7. At least one siren in the city typically fails, usually due to its battery, Hutchens said.

"We are in pretty good shape compared to a lot of communities. ... So I think we are as ready as we can be," he said.

Hutchens twice has been denied funds to replace the two older sirens. He will make the request again for 2011 but says it's "competing with other worthy projects."

La Crosse County municipalities each maintain their own severe weather sirens, Loeffler said. Holmen has five, West Salem two, Bangor one, and Veterans Memorial Campground and Goose Island Campground both have a siren.

Onalaska now uses a CodeRED emergency notification system that alerts people by calling their phones.

Tests within the past two months showed all sirens outside La Crosse were in working order except at Goose Island, which since has been repaired.

The La Crosse office of the National Weather Service will issue a tornado warning through the Internet, teletypes and weather radio when radar shows a rotation within the storm or if someone spots a funnel cloud, said Todd Shea, meteorologist with La Crosse office.

Loeffler's office activates the sirens if the weather service issues a tornado warning or reports sustained winds of 58 mph or greater, he said.

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