Politics & Government

Charlotte’s the only major city without complete radar coverage. Here’s a plan to help.

Charlotte finally might have a solution to its long-running weather radar gap problem.

Two solutions, actually.

The National Weather Service is prepared to change the angles of Doppler radars at facilities in Greer and Columbia, S.C., to provide coverage in Charlotte at approximately 3,000 feet. The facility in Greer, located in Greenville and Spartanburg counties, is the closest radar to Charlotte. It is more than 80 miles away. It leaves Charlotte as one of the largest metro areas in the country with reduced coverage from the Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD).

The issue had catastrophic results in 2012 when fast-moving tornadoes swept into the area without adequate warning time. Three people were injured in Charlotte when the twister, with winds of 135 mph, made impact by Reedy Creek Park. The National Weather Service missed it, and local meteorologists campaigned to lawmakers to make changes.

The Charlotte area has coverage at 10,000 feet currently. Radar data at lower atmospheric levels can help detect small-scale tornadoes and other dangerous weather events. Before the changes can take place, environmental impact and feasibility studies will take place this fall with implementation expected by the summer of 2019.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport has a Terminal Doppler Weather Radar, which complements the NEXRAD coverage.

“The National Weather Service proposal will improve, but not totally resolve, the Charlotte region’s dangerous radar gap,” Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-Charlotte, said in a statement. “This is a good step forward, but more work remains.”

Pittenger hosted a discussion on Friday in Charlotte with local meteorologists, the director of the National Weather Service, representatives from the City of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County and researchers from the University of Massachusetts. The National Weather Service told the group of its plans at the meeting.

The National Weather Service is not making any more NEXRAD radars and is currently working to extend the life of its currently deployed radars. The next generation of radars is about 15 to 20 years away. There are 160 NEXRAD sites in the U.S. and select overseas locations, according to NOAA, and the development, acquisition and installation cost $3.1 billion between 1979 and 1996 paid for by federal agencies, according to the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology.

Cities serviced by NEXRAD, including Raleigh and Atlanta, have coverage down to about 2,500 feet. Charlotte is not the only area in the country with gaps, just the most populous.

President Donald Trump signed the Weather Research and Forecasting innovation Act of 2017 in April 2017. A provision of the bill, added by Pittenger and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., required the National Weather Service to develop a solution to the problem in Charlotte.

“It still seems like a Band-Aid on the problem, rather than identifying the solution and fixing the problem. I’d rather find a way to solve the problem than get a halfway-there solution,” said Matthew Ridenhour, a Mecklenburg County commissioner.

Ridenhour is more excited about the other potential solution — deployment of less powerful, but cheaper and quicker-updating CASA radar in the area. CASA radars have a 25-mile radius, can look at lower levels of storms and can refresh images every 30 to 60 seconds, according to the Star-Telegram. The technology was developed at the University of Massachusetts and has been deployed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas.

A deployment of three CASA radars could give Charlotte and neighboring areas toward Guilford County enough coverage, Ridenhour said. The system would not only help with storm warnings, but would be able to track rainfall accumulation and rainfall rate, a key measure for storm water and emergency services worried about flooding and infrastructure issues.

The National Weather Service would also use the data from the CASA radars, but would not pay for them.

The cost to purchase the three radars is just under $3 million, Ridenhour said. Annual maintenance would cost about $200,000. Ridenhour is leading a group tasked with finding the money.

“The University of Massachusetts CASA technology is an achievable, low-cost option that would complement existing National Weather Service facilities and provide a major boost for local meteorologists in times of severe weather,” Pittenger said in a statement.

Mecklenberg County had a $1.7 billion budget in fiscal year 2018. The City of Charlotte’s budget for fiscal year 2019 is $2.6 billion.

By comparison, a planned pedestrian bridge over I-277 would cost $11 million with the county and city each contributing $3.1 million.

But Ridenhour said the county and city should not be expected to pay for all of the cost, but instead should get contributions from surrounding areas and other stakeholders, such as utilities, businesses and corporations that could be impacted by severe weather. A National Science Foundation grant provided funding for the 10-year, $40-million project in north Texas, according to the Star-Telegram.

“If we get enough people at the table, we can make this happen,” he said.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC

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