Local governments struggle to warn those living outside about deadly weather

by Jesse Call

Federal, state, and local agencies in the area all struggled to answer the question of how best to warn people experiencing homelessness living outside.

“It’s a good question,” said Mike Kurhz, meteorologist with the local office of the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio.

Kurhz said the only resource available from the National Weather Service is the NOAA Weather Radio service, which sends text and voice alerts during severe weather and other emergencies. However, people must be able to purchase a NOAA Weather Radio on their own, which range in cost from $20 to $60. Some people living on the streets, under bridges, or in the woods do not have the resources to invest that amount on a weather radio. Yet, they are often living in the places where getting early warning is most crucial.

Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, showed Streetvibes where some people experiencing homelessness in Hamilton County live in outdoor camps.

Many of these camps were located under bridges and overpasses, which many feel is a safe location to be during a severe thunderstorm or tornado. However, the National Weather Service says nothing could be farther from the truth. Underpasses provide an extreme danger during a tornado because they more easily expose people to flying debris, and winds are actually strengthened as they pass under a bridge.

Nonetheless, emergency officials in the area are reluctant to take on the responsibility of warning individuals living in these places.

“Clermont County encourages all citizens to be self prepared,” Beth Nevel, director of the Clermont County Emergency Management Agency, said. She refers people to a brochure which she said is widely distributed throughout the county, but not through any programs specifically targeting people experiencing homelessness in the county.

Across the river in Northern Kentucky, the sentiment of self-preparedness is echoed by statewide officials.

“Every individual has a level of responsibility to be aware of their risk and prepared and have plans to protect themselves and mitigate those risks,” Buddy Rogers, spokesperson for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, said. He also suggested that residents in Kentucky purchase NOAA weather radios, and when warnings are issued, to seek shelter indoors.

However, many people living outside do not live near shelters or public buildings. And both Rogers in Kentucky and Kurhz in Ohio said they were unaware of any programs that provide free or low-cost NOAA weather radios to people experiencing homelessness, but said that local emergency management agencies or charities would offer the best chance of providing assistance, if any.

Back in Hamilton County, the people Streetvibes encountered living in camps did not have any NOAA weather radios, though some had
regular battery-powered AM/FM radios. However, many radio stations in the region do not broadcast all NOAA weather alerts on their stations, unlike local TV news channels that can do so without interrupting programming and have their own weather departments.

No one had a television, let alone electricity, in the Hamilton County camps Streetvibes visited.

Aside from not having a clear warning system in their camps, the sheriff’s office says there is no policy to specifically warn those in camps or living outside, or even check on them after the fact.

“The Sheriff’s Office Patrol Section is occasionally dispatched to and have checked on reports of homeless individuals who may be in need of assistance or requests to check on the welfare of the homeless,” Stephen Barnett, public information officer for
the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department said, “but to my knowledge we have never had a set policy that addresses a protocol for any type of notification to specific areas within the unincorporated areas of the county for severe weather.”

One reason for a lack of policy could be a lack of resources for the Sheriff’s Department.

“With a limited amount of resources…on the street at any one given time the county wide sirens and media service have always been our best early warning signals,” Barnett said. He said that the patrol units do have a public address capability, but that is probably not used often because the sheriff’s department is busy responding to reported emergencies during a storm, such as downed power lines, storm damage and lost traffic signals.

In Kentucky, Rogers agreed that many local communities probably do not have the financial resources to send people out to warn or check on people living outdoors. He also mentioned outdoor emergency sirens as a resource for those living outside. However, he admitted these sirens cannot be heard in all parts of a community, including some of the remote places where people experiencing homelessness sometimes stay.

A map of the tornado sirens in Kenton County, Kentucky, provided online by its emergency management agency, shows that most of them are in the heavily-populated residential parts of the county, despite the sirens being designed to warn people outdoors, not indoors.

Few people living outdoors wanted to be quoted in the article, but some showed us their homes. Living in the woods or under bridges, they often had a tent or a small shack made of wood they had found or been given.

These homes provide little shelter from the elements, including severe weather like heavy rains or hail, as well as from extreme heat or cold. Adequate warning can allow them to escape to someplace safer or better prepare, Rogers said.

However, Rogers said there are no known cases of anyone in a homeless camp suffering injury during a severe thunderstorm warning or tornado in Kentucky. However, flash flooding is what often causes the most deaths due to severe weather in the Commonwealth.

And, emergency managers rarely use outdoor sirens to warn of flash flooding, relying instead on NOAA weather radios and local media, to which many experiencing homelessness along riverbanks may not have access.