Newspaper Takes Government to Task on Flood Deaths

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June 22, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Editor's Note: The following editorial appeared in today's (June 22) issue of the Wheeling News-Register, Wheeling, W. Va.

Once the public outcry over disasters subsides and after the photo-ops and sound-bite opportunites are over for politicians, their interest in avoiding similar tragedies in the future begins to lag. That was the case after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans; work to repair and improve levees there still has not been completed. It probably will be the situation along the Gulf Coast in a few months, once the news media's interest in the oil spill there lapses.

The federal government's failure to view protection from disasters as an emergency may well have caused some deaths earlier this month in Arkansas.

There, 20 people died when a flash flood roared through campgrounds. Campers had little or no warning the weather had turned deadly.

Such warnings are one reason why the National Weather Service (NWS) maintains a special radio network. It is used to broadcast warnings of severe weather such as that responsible for the Arkansas flooding.

But the flooded campgrounds were not in range of an NWS radio tower. The agency's original tower for that area was destroyed two years ago by Tropical Storm Ike. A temporary, low-power tower with a range of only a few miles was erected. According to a published report, the NWS says "a lease agreement has gotten in the way of a more powerful, permanent tower."

We understand that legal questions can stall such projects. But two years? Surely, had someone in the government taken the matter more seriously, the weather radio tower could have been replaced sooner.

According to one report, four warnings of flash flooding were broadcast during the hour before the campground was destroyed. Again, however, no one in the affected area heard the broadcasts.

Arkansas officials want their state's delegation in Congress to do something about warning people in isolated areas about severe weather conditions. Last week The Associated Press reported that Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., planned to meet with U.S. Forest Service officials to discuss warning systems at sites such as campgrounds in the Albert Pike Recreation Area, where the fatal floodding occurred. "Pryor says the solution may be as simple as warning bells or an informational campaign," the AP reported.

What about simply expediting work on the NWS radio tower? And what about a congressional investigation into whether other government disaster warning systems in the United States are functioning properly?

This isn't a matter of partisan politics. It is one of life and death. Members of Congress should insist that the NWS and other agencies view it that way.

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