Floridians are far less likely than other Americans to get advance notice of tornadoes, the chief of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, Mo., said Friday.
Between 1982 and 1991, official tornado watches preceded just 21 percent of the 546 tornadoes that struck Florida, said Fred Ostby, director of the center. For the nation as a whole, watches were issued before 85 percent of all tornadoes.
Ostby blamed Florida's geography and aging weather forecasting equipment for the dismal record.
"Particularly on the west coast of Florida," Ostby said, "folks really need to be more aware of the tornado safety rules and more aware of developing weather than in many of the more tornado-prone parts of the country."
Fortunately for Florida, most of the tornadoes here are a lot smaller than those that raked mid-Pinellas last weekend, killing four people and causing more than $30-million in damage. Ostby said the weather service's average for issuing watches on larger tornadoes in Florida is about 46 percent.
A watch is a notice of conditions likely to create tornadoes and is generally issued two to six hours in advance, said Ostby, whose center issues watches for the entire nation. No watch was issued ahead of the Pinellas tornadoes.
A warning, which is issued by local weather offices when a tornado is seen on radar or on the ground, may come just moments before a tornado, or in last Saturday's case, after it already has hit.
Of course, issuance of a watch doesn't mean no one will be killed. The last time a killer tornado hit Florida, on June 8, 1989, in Franklin County, a watch had been issued, and three people died. A watch also was issued before Pinellas' last killer tornado, in 1978.
Ostby said forecasting Florida tornadoes is a special challenge.
"The parameters that cause tornadoes in Florida .
. are in many cases more subtle and a little harder to detect, harder to diagnose," Ostby said.
In the United States, tornadoes generally travel toward the northeast. Most tornado-prone parts of the country have land to the west of them, and weather stations and people to observe and report weather conditions.
But Florida has the Gulf of Mexico, and it has just one weather buoy to record sea-level conditions. Ostby said it would take a buoy every 50 miles to provide weather data comparable to that enjoyed by residents of other tornado-prone states.
But "I don't want to paint a picture that it's a hopeless situation," he said, explaining that a planned satellite and new Doppler radar would fill the information void of the gulf.
"One hope for the future I see .
. is the next generation of satellites to replace our ailing satellite that's up there now," Ostby said.
The new satellite would help forecasters issue a watch hours ahead of possible tornadoes, he said. But the satellite isn't expected to be in service until the first months of 1994, five years behind schedule.
Doppler radar would help the local office of the weather service see tornadoes when they form and issue a warning. In some parts of the nation, the radar has allowed warnings to go out as much as 20 minutes before a tornado strikes.
But despite the pleas of local politicians, the radar to replace Ruskin's aging equipment isn't scheduled for delivery until 1995.
Members of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration team assessing the damage in Pinellas said Friday that even if their study shows the new radar would have meant advance warning, there is no guarantee its delivery date will be moved up.
"It would be wonderful if we could have the new radars instantly over the entire country," said team spokesman Mac McLaughlin, who is chief of the meteorological services division in Fort Worth, Texas.
"A certain schedule is now set. How difficult it is to change that schedule, I don't know," he said of the schedule set by the military, the weather service and the Federal Aviation Administration. It ranks Ruskin 113th of the 176 sites around the nation getting the Doppler radar.
"Obviously, if a radar is installed earlier here, it's going to have to not be installed somewhere else," McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin and Ostby said they can find no evidence that the weather service had any indication tornadoes were forming last weekend.
Meanwhile, Florida residents are going to have to keep their fingers crossed.