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U.S. weather agency will honor Van Wert

VAN WERT - A federal weather agency was so impressed by the way some heroes in Van Wert County handled last month's deadly storms, it instituted an award just to honor them.

Van Wert County will be in the national spotlight again today when local officials accept the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration award at the Family Life Center in Van Wert.

Officials with National Weather Service, an NOAA agency, said they initiated the StormReady Community Hero Award to honor Van Wert County, where two people died Nov. 10 during unusual and fierce late-fall storms. “This is the kind of thing when you always have mixed emotions. When a tornado goes through a community, it's tough,” said Mike Sabones, head meteorologist for the NWS office in Syracuse, Ind. “But a lot of lives were saved.”

During a ceremony today, a representative of NWS in Washington will present the award to Rick McCoy, director of the emergency management agency, as well as Gary Adams, president of the board of county commissioners.

Van Wert Mayor Steve Gehres will receive the same recognition, but he won't be at the ceremony. He had a heart attack over the weekend and remained hospitalized yesterday. Another city representative will accept the award in his place.

In addition to the local leaders, Scott Shaffer, assistant manager of the Van Wert Cinemas, will be recognized for his life-saving efforts on the job.

Mr. Shaffer and other cinema employees are credited with herding up to 60 people into rest rooms.

The cinema manager has said he alerted employees and customers after a bulletin came over the local weather monitor, which Mr. McCoy was staffing. Mr. Shaffer hustled people into the rest rooms, then ducked in himself with seconds to spare.

Mr. McCoy said the NWS warning gave his county time to prepare for the tornadoes. Sirens were activated countywide about 20 minutes before the tornadoes hit, he said.

But for people who may not have heard the sirens - like moviegoers inside the theater - the local weather monitor was especially helpful. Residents with the monitors could hear Mr. McCoy live as he chronicled the storm's every step. “In this case, I spoke directly. One of my statements when I saw it was getting bad is I said all county nursing homes, the Van Wert Hospital, and the cinemas should go to their designated tornado shelters immediately,” Mr. McCoy said yesterday.

The tornadoes killed five people and injured 26 people in northwest Ohio.

Hancock, Seneca, Paulding, Ottawa, Putnam, and Van Wert counties were declared federal disaster areas. Yesterday, federal and state officials said more than $950,000 has been approved to assist people affected by the tornadoes.

Of the northwest Ohio counties hardest hit, Van Wert was the only one certified as a StormReady community. The new, voluntary program is sponsored by the NWS and helps community leaders improve their weather communication systems and educate the public about the weather.

The other Ohio communities that are certified are Scioto, Huron, and Allen counties.

In Van Wert, Mr. McCoy said the certification process helped his county prepare for the storm. As a result, he's received requests to speak at conferences in other states about how his county responded to the tornadoes. “I just think other communities need to look at what happened in Van Wert and say this is a model for how things can be put into place, how it worked, and how things worked right,” he said.

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