The National Weather Service said Monday it has the right equipment, staffing and communications to alert Charlotte residents to dangerous storms, despite the lack of warnings posted before the tornado that hit the area early Saturday.
Mickey Brown, executive director of the Weather Service's Eastern U.S. zone, defended the agency after three Charlotte TV meteorologists voiced concerns about its equipment and the way its offices communicate.
Meanwhile, state and local officials on Monday toured damaged neighborhoods, trying to determine whether they qualify for state or federal assistance. .
The tornado struck about 2:30 a.m. Saturday in eastern Mecklenburg and southern Cabarrus counties without any watches or warnings in effect for the area. The Weather Service office in Raleigh issued a tornado warning at 2:40 a.m. for Stanly County, saying radar showed a tornado southwest of Concord - near the Mecklenburg-Cabarrus line.
Weather service criticism
WBTV meteorologist Eric Thomas said Sunday that something seemed "seriously amiss" when the Weather Service's Raleigh office didn't alert the agency's Greer, S.C., office about the storm. He voiced concern over the communications between the two offices.
The Charlotte area is divided among three National Weather Service offices. Most of the region is served by the Greer station. But Raleigh oversees Stanly, Anson, Richmond and Montgomery counties, and the Columbia office handles Lancaster and Chesterfield counties in South Carolina.
Meanwhile, WCNC chief meteorologist Brad Panovich wrote Monday in his blog that his station's advanced radar unit clearly showed the tornado developing over Charlotte. He said the Weather Service's closest Doppler radar units - in Greer and Columbia - apparently did not pick up the storm.
The agency gets some of its Charlotte weather information from a different type of radar unit - called Terminal Doppler - that was installed a few years ago near Mountain Island Lake. Panovich said it is not as good at spotting circulating winds as a Doppler unit.
Jeff Crum, meteorologist at News 14 in Charlotte, also has been vocal in recent years, advocating for the Charlotte area to get the more advanced radar unit.
Doppler is an advanced radar system, capable of providing meteorologists with specific information on the formation of storms.
Terminal Doppler radar's specialty is detecting wind shear at lower levels of the atmosphere, and the federal government has installed those units in recent years near major airports, like Charlotte Douglas International.
Jeff Masters, a noted meteorologist based in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Terminal Doppler radar sometimes cannot "see" as well through heavy precipitation, compared to Doppler units.
The range of the Weather Service's radar units also has been called into question. The agency's Doppler radar in Greer is 71 miles from Charlotte, and the Columbia radar is 80 miles away. Most meteorologists consider Doppler's range to be 65 to 100 miles.
Panovich said Charlotte is too far from the nearest Doppler units.
"Charlotte is the biggest city in the United States without a Doppler radar located within the acceptable range of the radar," he said.
"That unit gives us excellent low-level coverage," he said, referring to the Terminal Doppler radar near Mountain Island Lake. "The people in Greer have the ability to spot developing tornadoes, using that Terminal system."
Brown said staff members on duty early Saturday morning did see a radar signature of a tornado in Mecklenburg County - but only briefly.
"It was there for only one scan of the radar," Brown said.
News 14's Crum said he had lobbied former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole to help find the federal funding to put an advanced radar unit close to Charlotte. When Dole lost her bid for re-election in 2008, the matter was dropped, Crum said.
With two nuclear power plants close to Charlotte, Crum said, the area needs a better radar system.
Offices share data
The Weather Service operated a five-member office in Charlotte until 1990. When it was closed, federal officials said technology had improved enough so meteorologists in Greer, Columbia and Raleigh could watch over the Charlotte area.
Brown said Weather Service offices communicate with one another during severe weather events. In fact, he said, staff members can view radar returns from other offices.
"The people in the Greer office can access the radar data from Raleigh or Columbia," Brown said. "All of that is available at their work stations."
He said it is likely that by the time Raleigh staff saw the tornado "signature" - a hook at the end of the storm circulation - it was too late to warn the area that got hit. That is why a warning was issued for the next county in line, Stanly.
Brown and Harry Gerapetritis, of the Weather Service's Greer office, each said the type of thunderstorm that produced Saturday's tornado was difficult to track. They said so-called "supercell" thunderstorms, like those responsible for the killer tornadoes Friday in Indiana and Kentucky, have tops that soar 10 miles into the atmosphere.
The tops on the line of storms that raced through the Charlotte area at 60 mph early Saturday were less than half that tall, making their dynamics more difficult to follow on radar.
Brown said the time of the storm makes an argument for residents to get NOAA weather radios. The radios are silent until a warning is issued. He said people should put the radios in rooms where they sleep.
"I have one at my house, and believe me, when it goes off, you hear it," he said.
It's unclear what Mecklenburg County does to warn sleeping residents of potential tornadoes approaching. Wayne Broome, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management director, didn't return several calls from the Observer on Monday.
Many counties have subscribed to services like CodeRed that allow emergency management offices to quickly send out mass calls.
Union County installed CodeRed last November, Larry Brinker, Union's emergency communications director, said.
The system requires residents to call or go to the department's website to register their phone numbers and address. Between 40 and 80 residents are registering each day, Brinker said.
He's unsure how effective it would be warning people of a sudden, unpredicted tornado.
"But the system gives us an opportunity to make contact with a controlled group of people in a relatively quick time," he said. "It's not immediate. But it's a whole lot easier than trying to make hundreds of calls."
Staff writer David Perlmutt contributed.
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