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"NOAA is an anchor to ensure that the runway stays open'

Gleaming planes and beaming politicians flanked U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown on Friday as he forecast a rosy future for Tampa: MacDill's runway stays open, and Tampa Bay gets better weather predictions to boot.

Standing in the Air Force base's cavernous Hangar 5, Brown dedicated the new home of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's airborne "Hurricane Hunters," which moved from Miami in January. Brown's agency oversees NOAA.

"NOAA is an anchor to ensure that the runway stays open, which it will," Brown said to applause from politicians and community leaders who have labored for two years to prevent the closure of MacDill when a squadron of F-16s leaves next spring.

Equally good news for Tampa Bay residents is the federal government's plan to upgrade radically the forecasting ability of the National Weather Service office in Ruskin. By the beginning of next year, a Doppler radar system will be installed there, part of a $4-billion modernization plan, Brown said.

Along with the Doppler radar, a remote-sensing buoy will be anchored in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico and tide gauges will be installed along the gulf coastline, Brown said.

"Florida has paid a terrible price," he said. "We can't place a cost on lives lost, but advance warning of severe weather can save billions of dollars in lost property."

A year's worth of disastrous weather across the state, including Hurricane Andrew, killer tornadoes in Pinellas and the March 13 storm, pushed Florida to the top of the priority list for federal officials, Brown said.

Local meteorologists have long complained that outdated equipment has left them ill-prepared to forecast destructive weather and give adequate warning to area residents.

It wasn't until Florida's congressional delegation got into the act after the March storm killed dozens and caused $500-million in property damage that Ruskin moved up the list for the $300,000 Doppler radar.

"Finally, we've been heard," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, who attended Friday's news conference. "Unfortunately, it's taken deaths to get this done."

MacDill itself appeared dead, or at least dying, until the 14 NOAA aircraft moved to the base.

"This reaffirms at the highest level NOAA's commitment to the bay area," said Bob Buckhorn, an aide to Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. "This is a big day for Tampa. NOAA is here to stay."

The Commerce Department will assume control of the 50-year-old airfield in January 1996 and will look for other tenants to help defray the $3-million cost of maintaining the runway.

A functioning runway is crucial to keeping the two unified commands, Central Command and Special Operations Command, at the base.

Still at issue is whether the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 482nd Fighter Wing from Homestead Air Force Base will be stationed permanently at MacDill. That unit, which is expected to be converted to fuel tankers, is based temporarily here.

The bipartisan base closure commission will make a recommendation to President Clinton on July 1. Clinton will approve or reject the plan and then pass it on to Congress.