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Monitoring stormy skies

Short of digging a storm cellar, which is not a wise alternative given Florida's watery underground, there are few options for safety when a tornado drops out of the sky.

Even though the sudden nature of tornadoes often makes timely prediction impossible, the National Weather Service's system of storm detection and advisories can mean survival for those in the path of deadly funnel clouds. The casualties of life and property from last weekend's storm in Pinellas County, which did not show up on aging equipment in the area's Ruskin station in time for public warning, are a sad lesson to that effect.

Concern about the capabilities of the radar operating in the Ruskin station since 1957 is valid enough to spur reconsideration of the timetable on which an updated radar, or Doppler system, is to be installed. Currently, federal officials plan the new radar for Ruskin in 1995, one of the last dates on a list of 159 sites around the country scheduled for service. Doppler systems are able to read wind speed and direction; old equipment is limited to detecting objects such as precipitation.

While boosting the priority of Tampa Bay and its volatile weather on the radar schedule is important, other issues addressing the recent storm are just as critical.

Forecasters as far away as Miami the day before were able to assess that conditions over the Suncoast likely would be conducive to tornadoes, but the same assessment wasn't made closer to mid-Pinellas where the twisters struck. The weather service's standard investigation should shed light on whether, even with primitive equipment, local response could have been better.

Tornadoes that form over Plains and Midwest states have different characteristics that can affect their detection by even the newest radar equipment, making the use of national standards for issuing watches and warnings less effective in some areas. Atmospheric differences should be taken into consideration in establishing regional criteria for alerting the public.

A storm safety system that uses the latest technology and soundest guidelines available should not be too much for Florida residents to expect.