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Criticism of storm detectors intensifies

The harbor pilot whose ship rammed into the old Skyway Bridge during an unpredicted storm says the radar that's supposed to protect Tampa Bay weather is so poor he "wouldn't use (it) to navigate a rubber ducky."

John Lerro said Monday that the radar that failed to detect the 1980 storm also failed to alert Pinellas residents to the Oct. 3 tornadoes that killed four and caused more than $30-million damage.

Lerro joined Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt in urging the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council to press for a new Doppler radar system. The bay area ranks so low on the list of sites due to get Doppler _ 113th of 176 _ the system isn't scheduled to arrive until February 1995.

"I'm here to say, "Hey, move us up. We've had all these deaths,' " Lerro said after the meeting.

Lerro spoke to the planning council moments before it unanimously approved a resolution asking that the Ruskin weather station be moved up in the weather service's modernization plans. Ruskin's 1957-vintage system runs on vacuum tubes, much like old television sets, and lacks Doppler radar's ability to detect wind speed and direction.

Lerro was piloting the Summit Venture when it rammed into the Skyway, killing 35. The accident occurred during a heavy thunderstorm that was not preceded by a warning from the weather service.

"I hit the Skyway Bridge at 7:34 . . . the weather warning was issued at 8:15," he said. "So much for Ruskin's precision."

Although Lerro was cleared of negligence, his feelings of guilt over the deaths nearly drove him to suicide. He later turned those feelings around and became a counselor for a suicide hotline.

Lerro, 50, has multiple sclerosis, which has worsened over the past few years. He uses a cane and walks with difficulty. He can no longer work, but feels so strongly about the need for Doppler radar he made the trip from his Tampa home to St. Petersburg to support Platt's resolution.

Platt is among several politicians who have been trying to speed up the timetable for bringing Doppler to the bay area. A similar resolution was passed by the planning council last year (Lerro spoke at that meeting, too). Platt renewed the call after the Pinellas tornadoes showed that the Doppler radar system in Melbourne is too far away to protect Tampa Bay, despite weather service claims. No warning was issued before the tornadoes struck.

"You see the things the federal government spends money on . . . and there are no excuses," Platt said.

"Four people have died since we asked for that system (last year) . . . and 300 were injured. Even if two of those people were kept alive and 20 of those people were not injured, it would have been worth the effort and money to upgrade that system."

Planning commissioners, who represent county and city governments throughout the bay area, also heard presentations on Dade County's response to Hurricane Andrew, and what might happen should such a storm hit here. Council Executive Director Julia Greene said that although Tampa Bay has perhaps the best hurricane recovery plan in the state, it wouldn't be good enough to cope with a storm of Andrew's magnitude.

Greene, who went to Homestead a month after the Aug. 24 hurricane to review the recovery effort, found a number of problems that the bay area's recovery plan doesn't address, such as:

Coordinating good will. Volunteers and donated supplies poured into Homestead, but no one knew how to deploy the people and store and distribute the goods, she said.

Planning the proper roles of local governments to avoid duplication and turf battles.

Finding enough sites to burn rubble. The current recovery plan calls for only two burn sites in Pinellas County, while 50 are being used in Homestead.

Helping people travel around cities where street signs and traffic signals are missing and buildings that once served as landmarks are reduced to rubble.

Commission Chairman C. Coleman Stipanovich appointed a task force to improve the bay area's hurricane plan.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura proposed appointing a group to review building codes and inspection practices in light of accusations that much of Dade's devastation was because of substandard construction. Stipanovich rejected the review panel, however, saying that such a group should wait until the first task force has started its work..