Agency, union spar over tornado-warning upgrades in deadly storms' wake

When tornadoes touched down in the Midwest this week, residents followed the same advice they've been hearing for decades: Get to an interior room, and sit tight.

Such preparation won't help anyone in a tornado's direct path. But with an average warning time of 12 to 14 minutes, evacuations are rarely possible, so reducing chaos and panic is the best way to save lives.

New radar systems and software could change all that, allowing forecasters to give as much as an hour of warning to potential tornado victims, according to the National Weather Service Employee Organization. But such an upgrade would take years and cost tens of millions of dollars -- an investment union President Dan Sobien said has fallen by the wayside as the Obama administration pressures agencies to cut back budgets.

"I think the big problem is that the administration has decided to stop investing in the infrastructure of the National Weather Service and, in fact, is actually cutting the National Weather Service at a time when it is more important than ever to modernize the nation's warning capabilities," Sobien said.

The complaint is the latest from a union that is unhappy with how NWS is faring under the funding priorities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The White House budget for fiscal 2013 would make cuts to NWS -- including the elimination of almost 100 positions -- and delay projects throughout NOAA (Greenwire, Feb. 15).


Sobien said this week's tornadoes -- which have so far killed at least 12 people -- highlight the need for NWS's parent, NOAA, to invest in phased array radar, mesoscale modeling and a better communication system. The new radar would immediately add six minutes to the average warning time, while the modeling would allow forecasters to better predict what storms could create tornadoes and which areas are most at risk.

NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro called such assertions "not factual." Phased array radar is still being researched, he said, and NWS has prioritized funding for software upgrades to the current radar system that helps forecasters better confirm the existence and location of tornadoes.

"Multi-function phased array radar is a promising and evolving technology, but it is about 10 years from being used operationally," he said. "It could not have been a factor in detecting this week's storms."

The devastation in the Midwest has made headlines across the country. Yesterday morning, six people died in a tornado in Harrisburg, Ill., while about 100 more were injured. Residents in Harveyville, Kan., got no tornado warning at all before one formed, wrought destruction and disappeared.

Last year was the deadliest tornado season in 75 years, killing 550 people. Such devastation illustrates the limitations of the current warning system, despite the strides NWS has made in the last two decades. Residents once were lucky to have five minutes of warning; today, they can get as much as 40 minutes if a tornado is spotted in a low-populated area before it hits a town.

But sometimes they get no warning at all, as in Harveyville's case. Sobien argued that phased array radar is a proven technology, though it would no doubt have to be tweaked as NWS installed it. Such radar instantaneously feeds information to forecasters; the current Doppler radar system takes time to scan, meaning forecasters are looking at information that is already six minutes old.

Vaccaro said NOAA continues to fund research into phased array but is moving forward with a $50 million software upgrade that allows forecasters to differentiate between precipitation and debris.

The upgrade to dual polarization radar -- called "dual pol" -- allows forecasters to differentiate among types of precipitation, helping with a variety of storm predictions. For tornadoes, it does not increase the warning time, but it does ensure that forecasters can spot them in the middle of the night or when they are shrouded by rainfall.

So far, 44 of a nationwide network of 160 radars have been upgraded. Most will be upgraded by the end of this year, with a few completed in early 2013, Vaccaro said. The Springfield, Mo., office -- which issued the warnings for the tornadoes this week -- is one to have already been upgraded.

To Sobien, that is not nearly enough. NOAA and NWS, he said, should be more aggressively pushing the project forward to ensure it is implemented as early as possible to save as many lives as possible.

"I don't know that they are putting the effort into doing it," he said. "It should be like the moon shot. It should be like Kennedy landing on the moon."

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