Weather Gear Storms Ahead Modernization Saving Lives
CHANTILLY, Va. -- For meteorologist Dennis McCarthy, the National Weather Service's 12-year, $4.5 billion modernization proved itself worth every penny on May 3, when deadly tornadoes swept down on Oklahoma and Kansas.
Forecasters were able to study the storms from different radar stations simultaneously, blend in other weather data on the same computer terminal, and issue warnings at least 13 minutes before the storms hit -- and much earlier in some cases -- saving hundreds of lives.
"With AWIPS we could divide the storms among forecasters and focus on multiple tornadoes," McCarthy said yesterday, demonstrating the forecasting equipment at the National Weather Service office.
Today, more than 150 AWIPS -- Advanced Weather Interactive Processing Systems -- are operating in Weather Service offices across the nation. It is the crown jewel in the agency's long-running modernization.
The Weather Service held a demonstration of its new technology to celebrate the completion of the modernization project, which also includes 311 automatic weather observing systems, 120 new Doppler radars and three modern weather satellites, as well as retraining of the weather forecasting staff.
The goal, said Weather Service director Jack Kelly, is "to turn your Weather Service into America's no-surprise weather service."
Their success in approaching that goal was illustrated for McCarthy, meteorologist-in-charge of the Weather Service office in Norman, Okla., by a humanitarian award presented to his forecasters by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.
While 45 people died in the storms in Oklahoma and six more in Kansas, researchers estimate the timely warnings saved hundreds of lives.
Average warning time was 18 minutes in these tornadoes, McCarthy said. Not so many years ago, warnings weren't issued until a tornado was actually seen on the ground. …