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Tampa Bay officials pleading for modern radar equipment

Politicians who think advanced weather radar might have saved lives in Saturday's tornadoes are lobbying federal officials to bring the equipment to Tampa Bay ahead of its scheduled 1995 arrival.

"Please, please, please accelerate the installation of updated radar equipment at the National Weather Service's Ruskin station," Rep. Sam M. Gibbons, D-Tampa, asked in a letter Monday to the head of the National Weather Service. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt are making the same request.

Weather experts say the type of Doppler equipment slated for the National Weather Service in Ruskin probably would have detected Saturday's tornadoes, or at least the fact that heavy winds were brewing.

A warning, which would have been broadcast over TV and radio, wouldn't have come early enough to avert property damage, but it might have given residents at least a few more minutes to find safer shelter.

Three of four storm deaths Saturday in Pinellas County occurred in mobile home communities, whose residents are advised to evacuate during strong storms.

Currently, the Ruskin station isn't supposed to see Doppler radar until February 1995, one of the last in the nation to be updated, weather service officials say. In Florida, only Key West is lower on the list for modern equipment. Of 159 sites around the nation, Ruskin ranks 127th.

The priorities were set by a committee drawn from the military, the weather service and the Federal Aviation Authority.

Unlike the 1957 radar equipment now used in Ruskin, the Doppler radar can detect wind speed and direction. The old equipment only senses objects, such as precipitation, trees and birds.

All three major local television stations have some Doppler capability, but none of them were able to alert the Ruskin station to the impending tornadoes.

"We do not have the staff nor the equipment that the National Weather Service has at its fingertips," Channel 13 meteorologist Roy Leep said. "That's why Congress has mandated them to be the single source of warnings for weather."

Why is the Tampa Bay area so low on the list?

Federal officials say priority was given to the "tornado alley" area between the Rockies and the Mississippi River, since so many people have been killed there by huge tornadoes. Four of the first six stations already equipped with Doppler are in the region.

Local officials, including Gibbons and Platt, protested the priority list last year. At that time, they were told by the weather service that Melbourne's new radar would protect Tampa Bay until Ruskin is updated.

But Saturday's storms proved that Melbourne's radar is too far away to have seen the Pinellas tornadoes. The curvature of the Earth limits the Melbourne radar's "vision" to high in the atmosphere. Saturday's tornadoes didn't show up at all, said Bart Hagemeyer, meteorologist in charge of the Melbourne station.

Tampa Bay's equipment may be primitive, but weather experts from around the country still are convening this week to see whether the local response to the tornadoes should have been better.

Meteorologists in Ruskin, Melbourne and Kansas City, Mo., home of the Severe Storms Forecast Center, are being debriefed. Pinellas residents who saw the tornadoes also are being asked for their observations.

On Tuesday, a meteorologist from the Kansas City center flew over Pinellas County in a specially equipped plane to study the storm's path. He will continue his observations today, said Robert Balfour, meteorologist in charge of the Ruskin station.

Disaster survey teams are routinely called in by the National Weather Service after severe storms, Balfour said.

He stressed the investigation is a learning tool, not a search for blame.

"The purpose of the disaster survey team is to find out what was done right, or what wasn't done, and learn from it," he said.

Despite the questions that have been raised over the weather service's failure to provide advance warning of the tornadoes, Balfour said he thinks his office did all it could.

"At this point, I can't find anything we did wrong," he said. "It's frustrating, because giving warnings is our task, but we didn't get any warnings ourselves."

Balfour and Jim Henderson, deputy director of the Kansas City center, both said they think the bay area might have known about the tornadoes earlier if the Doppler system were already in place.

Hagemeyer, the Melbourne meteorologist, agrees.

"I can't say it would have "seen' a tornado, but from our experience, it has a lot more detail and resolution. It's quite probable we would have seen something that would have led to the issuance of a warning."

As it is, the station makes do with a 1957 radar that runs on vacuum tubes much like those that powered old televisions.

Ruskin is certainly not the only weather station with old equipment. Around the nation, tornadoes often are followed by outcries for better radar, costing about $3-million per station.

Every week, three or four communities call Louis Boezi, head of modernizing the weather service, and jockey for position on the priority list. The list was devised in the late '80s based on frequency of storms, size of population and proximity to military facilities.

Boezi said if one site is moved up, another goes down.

"We're trying to resist (the pressure). There's a demand around the country," he said.

The National Weather Service has six stations equipped with Doppler radar. Four are in "tornado alley," one is in Melbourne to protect the Kennedy Space Center and the sixth is in Sterling, Va., near Dulles Airport.

Ron Alberty, director of the weather service group that oversees the operation of the Doppler radar, agrees that some might see a political motivation in one of those sites.

"The Virginia facility," he said with a laugh, "is for protection of the president and high-ranking politicians flying in and out of Washington."

__ Correspondent Mike Mahan contributed to this report.

The Value of Doppler

The Doppler effect, discovered in 1842 by Austrian scientist Christian Doppler, explains the compression and expansion of waves. For instance, the whistle of a train moving toward you will give off a higher pitch than that of a train moving away from you because the waves are compressed when moving in the same direction as the source of the waves, and expanded then they're moving in the opposite direction. When used in radar, the Doppler effect detects the differences in wind speed and direction that can be used to predict conditions favorable to the formation of tornadoes.

Conventional radar

1. Radar antenna sends out radio waves.

2. Conventional radar detects only objects, such as rain, which reflect some radio waves back to the antenna. Those waves are converted into maps and other displays.

3. On a digital display produced from waves collected with conventional radar, colors show precipitation and its intensity. The lightest rain is blue, with green and yellow indicating progressively heavier rains. Red areas show hail. Because conventional radar can't detect wind speed and direction, this display won't show areas that could be producing tornadoes.

Doppler radar

1. Doppler also sends out radio waves. Precipitation moving toward the station increases the frequency of the waves.

2. Wind blowing precipitation away from the antenna lowers the frequency of reflected radio waves. Doppler radar detects both kinds of winds and uses them to show patterns.

3. On Doppler radar winds blowing toward the radar are shown in green with the lightest green indicating 50-knot winds. Winds blowing away from the radar are blue, with the lightest blue representing 50-knot winds. Dark red circles show where strong winds are close together but blowing in opposite directions _ a condition ripe for torando formation.