New radar could save lives when spring storms hit DFW

Posted Monday, Nov. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Plowing through the bureaucracy has taken longer than expected, but a network of faster and more precise storm detection radar units is expected to be up and running when the spring storm season flares up in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Scientists, meteorologists and emergency managers say the advanced radar system will provide five, 10 or even 20 minutes of additional early warning when tornadoes, flash floods, hailstorms or severe storms rake the region.

Jamie Moore, emergency management coordinator for Johnson County, said the low-level radar will be “game changing.”

“I think it’s a paradigm shift for public safety, it’s that significant,” he said.

"This is lifesaving technology," said Joe Frizzel, mayor pro tem of Midlothian, which is hosting one of the radar sites that will form an overlapping ring of coverage around the Metroplex.

“I think it will allow more precise and accurate warnings. Right now, you issue a tornado alert that covers half a county. With this you can bring it down to the neighborhood level or even street level,” he said.

Tom Bradshaw, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service’s Fort Worth office, said that the new radar will be a powerful tool for forecasters but that he expects some “growing pains” in the first year.

“I think we all have to manage our expectations. There are going to be technical hurdles and learning hurdles on our end. We’re going to be seeing things we haven’t seen before. We’re going to be careful how we approach things and try to learn from each event,” Bradshaw said.

The radar makes once-a-minute scans of storms instead of the usual five minutes and provides higher-resolution images and multiple overlapping views of storm cells, said Brenda Phillips, a co-leader of the project developed by the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere.

Because of Earth’s curvature, Doppler radar can’t observe the lower atmosphere, but CASA can scan down to about 250 feet above ground, Phillips said.

That will afford meteorologists a new vantage point, Bradshaw said.

“This is going to enable us, really for the first time, to get lower in the storms with higher resolution,” Bradshaw said.

He also expects better rainfall estimates because the radar can illuminate finer features in a storm, which should also allow for more pinpoint flash flood warnings.

“Now we tend to issue flash flood warnings for entire counties. We’re hoping we can really start getting down to smaller basins, even getting down to the creek level,” Bradshaw said.

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the $40 million, 10-year project is made up of a consortium of nine universities, government agencies and industry partners. Engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been leading its development since 2003.

The CASA program is providing the $4 million cost of the initial eight radars, each with a range of about 25 miles, that will cover the core population area of the Metroplex, Phillips said.

“We will have enough radars up to give us really good coverage of the Metroplex and be a great demonstration point for the value of the data,” she said.

The radar system proved its mettle during a four-year test in rural Oklahoma, Phillips said, adding that Dallas-Fort Worth’s 6.5 million people and volatile weather mix made it the perfect urban beta site for CASA’s next five-year study phase.

Ultimately, 16 to 20 radars will be needed to overlay the 16-county footprint of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which has been a key partner in the private-public endeavor, Phillips said.

Amanda Everly, the CASA coordinator for the council of governments, said the plan is to have six or seven radars operational by storm season. Phillips says she’s hoping for eight.

Each installation costs an average of $50,000 and hosts provide power, Internet connections and maintenance. Local governments will cover the first year's operational costs of $500,000, with those costs expected to be reduced in the second year, Everly said.

“All of the host jurisdictions automatically get access; they are paying their dues by installing a radar,” she said.

‘A very good deal’

Annual costs are calculated by the size of a jurisdiction, ranging from $500 for a population up to 999 to $35,000 for a population above 750,000.

“It’s a very good deal,” said Juan Ortiz, emergency manager coordinator for Fort Worth, which will host a radar unit on Boat Club Drive on the site of a 1920s water tower.

“No one jurisdiction could do this on their own but if you work together from a regional standpoint it becomes very affordable,” he said.

CASA radars have been installed at the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas..

At UTA, the civil engineering department will be using the data to analyze flash flooding in an urban environment.

“This is where hydrology meets meterology,” associate professor D.J. Seo said last year when the radar was installed atop a UTA building.

UNT educators plan to integrate the new technology into research on emergency-management operations and a class that will look at commercial applications for CASA radar.

Additional sites will be in Cleburne, Midlothian, Addison and southeast Dallas, Phillips said. She’s hoping they are all operational by March.

For the Cleburne site, at the Johnson County Emergency Center, six jurisdictions teamed up for the cost of the installattion, and Sabre International in Alvarado is donating the 40- to 50-foot tower where the radar will be placed, Moore said.

“We think the cost will be less than $20,000. Everybody has bought in,” he said.

Frizzel says CASA will be valuable for school districts trying to determine whether to close for winter storms.

“It takes the guesswork out. I jokingly say that down here in these rural areas, you put somebody in an old Hugo and send them down the street and if they make it back you can have school. If they don’t make it back you don’t have school and you go look for them,” he said.

Ortiz said the radar will also be attractive for businesses such as outdoor sports venues, airports and shipping companies.

“The first couple of years will show the benefits and we think we will be able to find private-sector participants down the road. As we develop projects we think it could basically pay for itself,” he said.

Red tape delays

CASA officials had hoped to have part of the network operational last spring but navigating the jurisdictional red tape took more time than anticipated, Phillips said.

“We are doing this as a pubic-private partnership and we are dealing with individual towns and universities and they each have their own bureaucracy and that is slowing us down,” she said.

“This is brand-new. It’s complicated but I think we are over a big hurdle. As we get these things up and we can demonstrate the data it will be much smoother sailing if we want to expand beyond eight radars,” Phillips said.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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