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Pressure on for modern radar

The Tampa Bay area can't afford to wait another three years for modern weather forecasting equipment, Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt said Monday.

Better radar might have helped forecasters at the National Weather Service in Ruskin warn Pinellas County residents Saturday of the possibility of tornadoes.

No tornadoes were seen on Ruskin's antiquated system, and no warning was issued before five twisters raked mid-Pinellas, killing at least three people, injuring 130 and causing millions of dollars in damage.

New Doppler radar equipment that could have found the tornadoes is not scheduled to be installed at the Ruskin station until February 1995.

That's too long to wait, Platt said in a letter she sent Monday to members of Florida's congressional delegation.

"They've got to do something," said Platt, who has been pushing for new radar equipment for more than a year. "It's obvious they can't just keep stalling."

The equipment used in Ruskin was designed in 1957 and is so old it uses vacuum tubes. Weather Service officials acknowledge it is out of date.

"I share your concern about the aging technology currently used at Tampa," Elbert W. Friday Jr., assistant administrator for weather services for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote in a Sept. 9 letter to U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.. "We agree that there is a need for new technology."

But there are other communities that need the equipment, too, and Ruskin is doing a good job with what it has, Friday wrote.

Ruskin's forecasters have the best track record in Florida for predicting severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, Friday said. They have a 53 percent record, which is about as good as is scientifically possible, he said.

A Doppler radar system that can give up to 40 minutes' warning as it measures air circulation in the clouds already has been installed in Melbourne and should help the Tampa Bay area, Friday wrote.

It didn't help Saturday.

Although Melbourne is technically close enough, it actually is too far away to be of much use, said Charles Paxton, a meteorologist at Ruskin. "One of the problems is the radar beam is looking at a slice of atmosphere at 10,000 to 20,000 feet," he said. That's simply too high to pick out tornadoes, he said.

Robert Balfour, chief meteorologist in Ruskin, said forecasters "did as well as they could" Saturday given the information and the equipment they had. However, the National Weather Service plans a review of how the Ruskin office and the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, Mo., functioned Saturday. The center did not issue any warnings for Pinellas.

Even if a tornado warning is issued, residents must rely on the cooperation of local news media to get the word out.

Radio and television stations generally cooperate during weather emergencies, but tornadoes pose a unique problem, said Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis. "Almost by the time you get the data out, it's gone," he said.

Communities in the Tampa Bay area long ago abandoned the use of emergency sirens, said David Bilodeau, civil emergency director for Pinellas. "The cost of them and the maintenance and how often they are utilized in the saltwater environment we are in is quite an expensive proposition," he said.

Tornado drills are not required in Pinellas schools, though a duck-and-cover procedure is in every teacher's handbook, said Bette Bac Ivey, an area school superintendent. In 1978 a tornado leveled High Point Elementary School in mid-Pinellas, killing three children and injuring 96 pupils and teachers.

The high cost of installing new radar equipment and the high demand for it mean Ruskin is 105th out of the 115 weather stations slated to receive it.

Platt wants political pressure exerted to move Ruskin higher on the list. She sent letters Monday to Graham, U.S. Sen. Connie Mack and U.S. Reps. Michael Bilirakis, C.W. Bill Young and Sam Gibbons.

"Lives have been lost and property damaged since my initial request to correct deficiencies," Platt wrote. "I urge you to act immediately to update the Ruskin office. There is no excuse for further delay."

_ Times staff writers Wayne Garcia and Kevin Thomas contributed to this report.