A fierce wind, a blanket of fog, rain spraying like bullets. The sudden squall that whipped over Tampa Bay on May 9, 1980, became an indelible part of this region's history. Inside the storm, the freighter Summit Venture veered off course, a section of the Sunshine Skyway collapsed, and 35 people fell to their deaths. What's less well known about the Skyway tragedy is one of its legacies: a network of sensors, buoys and computers that now watch over Tampa Bay. Another network monitors the wind and waves of Florida's Gulf Coast, and it's a legacy of the 1993 no-name storm. While little known, the two systems provide a surprisingly public way of watching subtle changes and urgent dangers off the Tampa Bay area's shores.
Based at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg, the systems can provide instant information to emergency managers, boaters and windsurfers. Web sites show the water levels beside the Skyway or the wind speed at Picnic Island Park, as they are changing.
But state and federal budget woes are creating stormy seas for the network that monitors the gulf.
Because of a loss of funding, it soon could be difficult to find equipment and staff to keep the wind and wave sensors in good operating condition, said USF marine science professor Mark Luther.
"We're hanging on a precarious thread," Luther said.
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Giant freighters chug under the Skyway bridge, and follow the 600-foot wide shipping channel that extends for miles up Tampa bay to the Port of Tampa. Some of the ships are two football fields long. Some of them draft 42 or 43 feet in a channel that can be less than 45 feet deep, Luther said.
The Tampa Bay monitoring system, called PORTS, can help. It features wind and wave-checking devices at locations such as the Skyway, Egmont Key and near the Port of Tampa. Data on tides, currents and winds is fed into computer models which helps harbor pilots know when a big ship can safely pass or is likely to get stuck. A paper Luther recently co-authored said ship groundings have dropped 60 percent since PORTS was created.
The data provided by thermometers, sensors, wind gauges and other devices also has allowed scientists to learn more about the movement of water through Tampa Bay. It has helped in such diverse tasks as following spills of sewage and other hazardous materials, tracking the movement of fish larvae and evaluating flooding dangers, Luther said.
"It's a system that provides real-time environmental information for better-informed decisionmaking on all aspects of what people do in and around the water," he said.
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When Hurricane Ivan churned up the Gulf of Mexico in 2004, Tarpon Springs Fire Division Chief Rick Butcher could detect a slight surge in the city's coastal waters.
Butcher, who also serves as the city's emergency management director, was looking at the Web site for COMPS, which is the network that monitors wind and water up and down Florida's Gulf Coast.
"It's a wonderful resource," Butcher said, because the data from stations on or near shore allow him to fine-tune information about nearby storms that he already receives from the National Hurricane Center and Pinellas County.
The system is not just for emergency managers. The same data is available to the public on the COMPS Web site.
The COMPS system also has helped scientists paint a picture of how water circulates in complex ways up, down and across Florida's Gulf Coast. It has helped with studies of Red Tide, with safe navigation and other issues.
"What we're trying to do is build a comprehensive coastal observing system," said Robert H. Weisberg, USF marine science professor.
Weisberg recalls a hot July day when he was standing in water off Sanibel Island and felt cool rivulets at his toes.
Because of his studies with COMPS data, Weisberg knew the cool water at his toes had come from the Panhandle and down along the gulf floor toward Sanibel. "We're able to trace the origin of that," he said.
In recent years, COMPS has received regular appropriations of $750,000 from the federal government and $200,000 from state government to maintain the system. But the state's budget crunch and the increasing federal reluctance to approve "earmarked" funds from Congress means those monies have largely dried up at this moment, Luther said.
Luther said COMPS does have an adequate supply of spare sensors but needs more money for such hardware as batteries, solar panels and connectors, plus staff time to fix the devices.
"We're kind of in dire straits," Luther said.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8232.