Despite the advent 20 years ago of sophisticated radar systems designed to safeguard Americans from tornadoes and other violent weather, the Stevens family had little warning before a twister sucked out the walls of their northeastern Charlotte home on March 3, 2012.
That’s because Charlotte has gone without one of the National Weather Service’s advanced Doppler storm warning systems all those years, even with its booming population. With 2.5 million people, it’s the largest metro area in the nation left essentially defenseless against twisters.
The 2012 tornado, packing 135 mph winds, flung 7-year-old Jamal Stevens from his bed to an embankment along Interstate 485, a football field away. It deposited his 5-year-old sister, Ayanna, in a neighbor’s yard.
Amazingly, neither child was seriously hurt, and there were no fatalities from a storm that destroyed six homes and left 35 others uninhabitable.
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Four years later, the city still lacks Doppler equipment, which is considered essential to predicting the onset of tornadoes and other severe weather.
Doppler towers are equipped with constantly rotating dishes that collect crucial data for severe weather alerts by beaming pulses into oncoming weather systems. They cost about $15 million each.
U.S. Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger has been spearheading a bipartisan push to win congressional passage of legislation that would compel the National Weather Service and the Commerce Department to at last build a Doppler tower near Charlotte.
In a phone interview, Pittenger called the radar gap “incredible” and said he is working “every angle” to expedite the process.
He and Republican Sen. Richard Burr last year proposed companion bills that would require the weather service to install Doppler systems near any city with a population greater than 700,000 people, a threshold that would protect Charlotte. Pittenger said that would remove the politics from the issue.
As a backstop, Pittenger, Democratic Reps. Alma Adams and David Price of North Carolina, and Republican Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington state are seeking to add to a House spending bill a requirement that the U.S. commerce secretary identify weak radar coverage areas across the country and, within four months, devise a plan for fixing the problems.
The current arrangement is so fraught with risks that in 2013 residents of the wrong Charlotte neighborhood were warned of an approaching severe weather system, the four lawmakers said in a letter last week to senior members of a House appropriations subcommittee.
“Charlotte is one example of dangerously inaccurate weather radar overage,” they wrote. “However, this problem also extends elsewhere in the country – specifically Washington state, northwest New Mexico and Columbus, Ohio.”
The National Weather Service said in a statement that it has no plans to add a new Doppler system for the area. It said the greater Charlotte area already receives “primary radar coverage” from two Doppler systems – one in Greer, S.C., and a second in Pilot, Va.
“In addition, supplemental radar coverage from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Terminal Doppler Weather Radar at Charlotte (Douglas) International Airport has been integrated into National Weather Service forecast operations,” the agency said.
But Eric Thomas, chief meteorologist for Charlotte station WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, said airport Doppler is weak, and the South Carolina location, which is nearly 80 miles away, provides Charlotte with no more than “fringe coverage.” The Virginia state line is nearly 100 miles from Charlotte.
Pittenger and others said Charlotte’s coverage void emanates in part from politics.
In the late 1980s, the Weather Service announced it would replace its equipment nationwide with more accurate Doppler systems, while also realigning the locations of its offices and radar systems.
Military bases were given top priority in siting decisions. Hence, all of North Carolina’s three Doppler systems were installed in or east of Raleigh, near the state’s big military bases. That left the western two thirds of the state to rely on those distant signals or beams from Doppler towers in neighboring states.
Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina faced a similar problem in his state, with a Doppler system sited near a coastal military base. The only other radar system was allotted for the state capital, Columbia.
In the mid-1990s, Hollings, who has since retired, fought for and secured funding for a Doppler system in western South Carolina. He arranged for the weather service’s Charlotte office to be shifted to Greenville, S.C., and its radar system to be replaced by a Doppler system in Greer, S.C., where it could serve the Greenville and Spartanburg area.
Why distance matters
The problem, meteorologist Thomas said, is not a radar system’s power, but rather the distance its pulses must travel, given the curvature of the Earth.
When the distance from a radar system reaches about 80 miles, he said, the radar shoots higher into the atmosphere, meaning that it will miss activity closer to the ground, where most tornadoes take shape.
While the Charlotte airport’s Doppler radar system can warn pilots of wind shear, or microbursts of air that can bring down planes, its system is much weaker. The airport system didn’t identify the 2012 twister that was just 13 miles away, Thomas said.
“This is a glaring example of why we can’t depend on an airport terminal Doppler radar to fill in these gaps,” Thomas said.
Pittenger said he’s seen no real opposition to the bill and that “it just takes a lot of … effort to get something done.”
Gordon: 202-383-0005, @greggordon2