CEDAR PARK, Texas (KXAN) - As May 27 gets closer, Bonnie LeMere gets more nervous.
LeMere's home was in the seven-mile path of the F-3 twister that roared through Cedar Park on May 27, 1997, tearing off the roof of a grocery store in a strip mall at the corner of U.S. 183 and F.M 1431.
"I was home alone when this hit," said LeMere, who still lives in the Cedar Park home that was rebuilt after the storm. "I was in shock for weeks afterward."
In the years just after the tornado, Cedar Park officials installed three tornado sirens to help warn residents of approaching potential danger.
Last summer, the city weighed whether to spend $300,000 to add more sirens to cover the sprawling new subdivisions that have sprung up over the past decade, but finally decided to scrap the siren system altogether in favor of an all-new public-preparedness and marketing plan.
But now, nearly a year later and in the middle of Central Texas' tornado season, the preparedness plan is still not complete. And the sirens installed in 1999-2000 are still in place, but city officials are not able to give a clear answer on whether they would be activated in the event of a weather emergency.
When KXAN asked Jessica Jackson, the city's emergency management coordinator, whether the sirens would be deployed, she said: "That's not a sole decision, so I can't answer that."
Jennie Huerta, the city's communications manager, was a little more forthcoming.
"If something were to happen, we have the capability to turn them on today if we need to," she said. "From my understanding, yes we would. We would turn them on, that's my understanding."
Jackson then said whether to activate the sirens would be "a group decision."
Jackson and Huerta could not say who would be in that group, or who would decide to sound the alarm in the event of a tornado touch down.
After several calls seeking clarification of the policy, Cedar Park Fire Chief Chris Connealy said his department still favors doing away with the siren system.
"The present sirens give a false perception of security," he said in a written statement. "Even with a greater distribution of siren towers, the ability of residents to hear them, (the department) would not cause the fire department to recommend their use."
And that uncertainty is enough to unsettle LeMere , who is among those wanting the sirens activated, at least until a new emergency plan is in place.
"I don't know the cost involved, but I don't think it's a smart move taking them down." said LeMere. "If anything, they should be putting more up."
The decision to move away from the siren system follows the recommendation made last July by Assistant Fire Chief James Mallinger.
He that the money needed to expand the system to the newer sections of Cedar Park would be better spent on early alert system.
Meanwhile, the city staff was tasked with creating the new preparedness, which is scheduled to be completed next month.
City officials are describing it as an educational piece that tells residents that in the event of severe weather, they should listen to the city's low-power radio station, buy weather radios, check the city's website, listen for reverse 911 calls and put together their own preparedness kits.
"Having situational awareness is very important for residents," said Jackson.
But when KXAN asked what information would be made available, how would residents receive the information and how much would the plan cost, few specifics were provided.
Jackson and Huerta mentioned flyers and information in utility bills. But those bills only reach about 20,000 households in the city with a population approaching 50,000. The city is relying on their regional partners to reach the other residents.
Jackson and Huerta were unable to provide an exact dollar amount for the plan but would only say the cost would be minimal.
Those answers could come at the Cedar Park City Council meeting on May 26. That's one day before the 14th anniversary of the F-5 tornado.
The full statement from Fire Chief Connealy
The CPFD stands by its recommendation of removing the three tornado sirens after a public awareness campaign to our citizens of having a weather radio in their home. Tornado siren use in other Central Texas cities is very rare. The Cities of Austin and Round Rock are examples of cities that do not use them. These weather radios provide a much more effective means of alerting our citizens to dangerous weather conditions.
The present sirens give a false perception of security. These devices were more useful when citizens did not have access to media and governmental entities to provide warnings and today's environment of well insulated homes, air conditioning with no windows open to the outside, and technological developments such as weather radios make their use much less effective.
Even with a greater distribution of siren towers, the ability of residents to hear them for the reasons cited above plus many people having deficient hearing would not cause the fire department to recommend
As fire chief, I cannot recommend the use of tornado sirens over use of present weather radios and other potential new notification systems in the future. Again, our citizens are better protected with weather radios. I take my responsibility for public safety in Cedar Park very seriously. In this matter, depending on siren towers is the wrong choice.
I am thankful that my city manager and City Council members make public safety their top priority. As an example, the CPFD is the only fire department in Central Texas to have minimum staffing of four firefighters on each fire truck. This enhances the safety of our citizens and firefighters.
In closing the decision to ultimately remove the siren towers after a public awareness campaign is the right decision.
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