NOAA, Union Spar Over Tornado-Warning Upgrades in Deadly Storms' Wake

Tornado warnings mean life or death -- as recent storms in the Midwest showed. Minutes count, and better staffing and technology can help the National Weather Service save lives with earlier tornado warnings. But the political drive to cut federal agency budgets are hurting the NWS's ability to improve forcasts, a federal employee union says.

"When tornadoes touched down in the Midwest this week, residents followed the same advice they've been hearing for decades: Get to an interior room, and sit tight.

Such preparation won't help anyone in a tornado's direct path. But with an average warning time of 12 to 14 minutes, evacuations are rarely possible, so reducing chaos and panic is the best way to save lives.

New radar systems and software could change all that, allowing forecasters to give as much as an hour of warning to potential tornado victims, according to the National Weather Service Employee Organization. But such an upgrade would take years and cost tens of millions of dollars -- an investment union President Dan Sobien said has fallen by the wayside as the Obama administration pressures agencies to cut back budgets. ...

Sobien said this week's tornadoes -- which have so far killed at least 12 people -- highlight the need for NWS's parent, NOAA, to invest in phased array radar, mesoscale modeling and a better communication system. The new radar would immediately add six minutes to the average warning time, while the modeling would allow forecasters to better predict what storms could create tornadoes and which areas are most at risk.

NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro called such assertions 'not factual.'"

Emily Yehle reports for Greenwire March 1, 2012.

Source: Greenwire, 03/02/2012