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Under the Radar: West Alabama Exposed

For thousands of west Alabama residents, severe weather brings extra danger. A "gap" in radar coverage means meteorologists can't "see" most tornadoes there.
Published: May. 26, 2022 at 11:44 AM CDT|Updated: May. 28, 2022 at 7:00 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - A lack of adequate radar coverage in west Alabama makes tracking tornadoes there very difficult. Thousands of our most-vulnerable citizens are even more vulnerable to tornadoes due to a lack of low-level radar coverage in that part of the state.

The problem exists at the intersection of science, politics and money.

Spring in west Alabama can be a beautiful time of year. Flowers bloom, farmers plant their crops and the warm sunshine often falls across the nurturing soil of the Alabama Black Belt. But the warm and humid days of Spring can also fuel powerful thunderstorms capable of producing tornadoes.

Jamie Wallace knows this all too well. The Millers Ferry resident was watching weather coverage on March 1, 2007, when his daughter called with a warning that proved to be lifesaving.

Safety with seconds to spare

A tornado was heading for Miller’s Ferry. Wallace and his wife wasted no time; they quickly sprinted to their storm shelter, making it to safety with only seconds to spare. It was a direct hit; the EF-4 tornado powered directly through their neighborhood, destroying their home.

The Wallaces survived, but not everyone was as lucky. Their neighbor, Cliff Gaston, was killed by the monster tornado.

The Millers Ferry tornado that day was an intense tornado associated with a large supercell thunderstorm. It extended up very high into the air; high enough that radar could detect it, thus allowing the National Weather Service to issue a tornado warning before the storm struck.

Those critical seconds were the difference in life and death for the Wallace family.

That wasn’t the case on the morning of Feb. 6, 2020, when a quick-hitting EF-1 tornado dropped down onto Marengo County without warning. The tornado hit the home of Anita Rembert, a substitute teacher in Demopolis, killing her and injuring her husband.

There’s no way to prove that better radar coverage in west Alabama would have saved Rembert’s life, but the National Weather Service in Birmingham serves Marengo County, and they are among the nation’s best meteorologists.

But even the best meteorologists need good data to do a great job. In west Alabama, that data is unavailable.

The United States government funds and operates a network of weather radars across the country, the best network in the world for those lucky enough to live close to one.

Why not just buy a new radar for west Alabama?

A quick radar lesson - radar works by sending out a beam. That beam hits the storm, bounces back, and is received by the radar. Sophisticated calculations based on this “bounce back” allow meteorologists to detect rain, see hail and track rotation in storms.

As the radar beam departs from the radar site, it is essentially flat. But the Earth’s surface is curved. So, as the beam moves away from the radar, it consistently gains altitude. By the time it arrives in west Alabama, the radar beam is often a mile above the ground. Tornadoes form in the lowest part of the sky, so meteorologists are missing some very important low-level data for tracking storms in the western and southwestern counties of our state.

So, why doesn’t someone just buy a radar? Well, it’s complicated.

There are more studies and statistics than answers and actions. First, radar systems are expensive. One that would sufficiently fill the gap in west Alabama would cost more than $1 million. Then there’s annual upkeep and maintenance expenses.

We reached out to our local National Weather Service offices in Birmingham and Mobile for local feedback, but they were unable to comment. The National Weather Service Public Affairs Office issued the following statement:

Not everyone agrees with this statement. In 2019, two researchers from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, or MIT, published a study suggesting just the opposite - that adding radars to the network would lead to better tornado warning performance.

The National Severe Storms Laboratory has a product called the Radar Quality Index, which shows the quality of radar coverage across the country. It also clearly shows a significant decrease in the quality of radar coverage across much of west Alabama.

99% coverage sounds good, but....

And, those 99% and 92% coverage statistics in the NWS statement sound good, but they don’t actually help very much. Tornadoes form below four thousand feet, so across much of west Alabama, the radar beam overshoots the critical area of storms where they form.

So, the debate continues. As it plays out, though, people in west Alabama remain more vulnerable to tornadoes.

Melissa Dove has a lot on her mind; she’s the Emergency Management Director for Wilcox County. Her calling in life is to keep the people there safe from all threats. The radar gap makes her job more difficult. In fact, an EF-1 tornado hit Camden earlier in the spring of 2022, again, without warning.

Chuck Downing leads the Monroe County Emergency Management Agency; they too suffer from a lack of low level radar coverage.

Dove and Downing are combining forces with other emergency managers to lobby for a radar in southwest Alabama. Former State EMA Director Brian Hastings feels passionately about this problem, too. Before it was announced that he was leaving the state to pursue another opportunity, he sat down with us to discuss the problem.

Alabama’s Congressional delegation is aware of the issue, too, and are working to help solve the problem. Much of the affected area falls under Alabama’s 7th Congressional District and Rep. Terri Sewell. She has taken an active role in helping to solve the radar gap, as well.

The best and most comprehensively helpful option is for the federal government to add a radar to the existing Doppler network, but, that might not happen.

WSFA 12 News, Alabama Power and Alabama-based Baron Weather have held discussions with local, county and state officials about the possibility of a public-private partnership to build a radar in west Alabama. Time will tell, but there is more movement and work being done on this topic now than at any time in the past.

There is some debate about whether a new radar would lead to a statistical improvement in tornado warnings.

But there is no debate that a new radar would help meteorologists better communicate the precise position, future track and specific threats posed by tornadoes that form in west Alabama’s radar gap.

That will help our weather team keep the people of west Alabama safer.

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