CONVENT — Outdoor warning sirens that St. James Parish government has had in place since the late 1980s did not sound when a powerful EF-3 tornado roared through Convent on Feb. 23, killing two people and injuring dozens more in the rural riverside community.
In nearby St. Charles Parish, similar outdoor sirens did ring, providing its residents with a measure of advance warning before another, much weaker tornado hit Kenner in neighboring Jefferson Parish more than four hours before the Convent tornado struck.
Many residents across St.
James Parish are asking why the sirens they hear tested once a month in their parish didn’t sound before the deadly tornado struck.
As it turns out, St. James’ sirens, which were installed with the assistance of local industry in 1989 and continue to be maintained by industry, were designed from the start to sound only for industrial incidents, parish officials said.
That revelation has led to more questions.
“People are like, ‘Why is it not for the community?’ ” St. James Parish Councilman Clyde Cooper said. “If it’s only used for industry leaks or chemical leaks, why not use it for a tornado or sometimes when inclement weather comes or any other major emergencies that might occur?”
The sirens in St. Charles came with the 1,159-megawatt Waterford 3 nuclear power plant in Killona that was built in the 1980s. Waterford, which began operating in September 1985, needed the sirens as part of an emergency warning system required to get its federal license.
Those sirens, which St. Charles Parish operates, have sounded for industrial, weather and other events since their installation in the 1980s and cue residents to seek out a message on public-access television, a telephone hot line, text or other sources, St. Charles officials said.
“We’re in a lucky situation that Waterford happens to be in our jurisdiction and that they had to have them and so we just piggy-back off of them,” said Steve Sirmon, emergency coordinator with the St. Charles Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Cooper, a first-term St. James councilman elected in 2015 to represent a west bank council district, raised the issue about the parish’s sirens Wednesday in a council meeting in Convent and pressed for change.
He said later that he felt it was important to voice what constituents are telling him, even though he does not represent Convent.
Sebastian West, 55, who lives on River Road a few miles north of where the tornado hit in Convent, said he appreciates what Cooper has done and believes the parish needs to find a way to have the sirens respond to weather events, too.
“I’m just saying this is the first time devastation of this magnitude has happened (in Convent) because of a tornado, and I think it’s a wake-up call,” West said. “So if you’ve got something already there, I don’t care who it belongs to, go set up some agreement for the betterment of the people.”
Parish leaders already have gotten the message. Two days before Cooper made his point at the courthouse, parish officials addressed the issue with residents of heavily hit Schexnaydre Street in Convent.
“We will change it,” St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel promised during the outdoor meeting in one resident’s front yard.
But Eric Deroche, director of the parish’s Office of Homeland Security, also warned shifting the sirens to respond to weather emergencies could be difficult and require infrastructure upgrades with an unknown price tag.
The existing sirens are solar-powered. Their batteries don’t have enough life to sound too often, a limitation that originally led officials years ago to set up the sirens for industrial incidents only, Deroche said.
The 55 St. James sirens, of which industry paid 80 percent of the cost, are spread out across the parish and have a one-half mile reach but can only handle two to three activations on their batteries per charge. A charge lasts 14 to 24 hours with good sunlight.
“So if we have a period of three to four days of cloudy weather and we’re activating the sirens … and we have a hazardous material incident … we can’t activate (the sirens) when we’re setting it off for thunderstorm warnings and tornadoes,” he told residents at the impromptu community meeting on Schexnaydre Street.
In contrast, the St. Charles sirens have power from the grid with battery backup, Waterford 3 officials said.
Built by Entergy, then known as Louisiana Power and Light, Waterford 3 was required to set up the sirens in a 10-mile radius around the Mississippi River-cooled power plant. The zone is tied to potential radiation risks if the plant were to have an incident.
Waterford set up 73 sirens in all, 36 in St. Charles and 37 in St. John the Baptist parishes, Waterford officials said.
Although the original cost was not available, Leanna Weaver, a Waterford 3 spokeswoman, said a recently completed modernization program of the sirens begun early last year cost $3.9 million.
St. Charles appears to be an outlier compared with other nearby governments.
Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said his office does not have a count of the parishes with warning sirens for weather events.
While some plants have their own outdoor sirens, the state office encourages electronic and media notifications, Steele said.
In Assumption and Ascension parishes, warning sirens are located in industrial areas — in Ascension along the river corridor and in Assumption, at the Napoleonville Salt Dome.
The sirens were installed and continue to be maintained by industry and have limited range. Though those parishes operate the sirens, they too are only used for industrial incidents, parish officials said.
Rick Webre, director of Ascension Parish’s Office of Homeland Security, said his parish does not rely on the sirens for weather events because of their limited reach and instead advises residents to get weather radios and smartphone applications.
Robert Ricks, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in Slidell, said sirens were more common in the 20th century when more people were outside. He said recent studies show that when people are indoors, especially in urban settings, they don’t always hear the sirens.
“In a country setting, it is wide open. Near a city setting, there’s so much noise pollution to begin with that a lot of times the sirens get muddled out,” Ricks said.
In still largely rural St. James, though, Deroche said parish officials are investigating their options and the costs of an upgrade.
“That’s one thing we will be reviewing. Do we have the funds and revenue to be able to do what we need to do?” Deroche said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.