WTOC Investigates: Under the Radar

WTOC Investigates: Under the Radar

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Three weeks ago, Mother Nature delivered a twirling, million dollar punch to Fort Stewart.

A high-end EF-1 tornado spun from a thunderstorm moving across Bryan County, flipping cars, splintering roofs and turning trees into pulp.

The only warning the thousands in its path got that afternoon came from witnesses, not weather radar. And it exposed a "limitation" to our early warning system that many are unaware of because, like the folks on post that day, many of you are also living, "under the radar."

In weather, there is no such thing as a guarantee. No guarantee the storm predicted will be the storm that arrives. No guarantee the warning you get will always come before the event, and not after.

When this month's EF-1 tornado raked across parts of Hinesville and onto Fort Stewart, the first warning came from eyes on the ground - not weather radar in the sky - as many of us might expect in the 21st century.

In fact, huge sections of Bryan, Liberty, Bulloch and Effingham Counties, southeast Georgia's very own "tornado alley", are blind to lower altitude events like EF-0, 1 and some EF-2 tornados despite radar.

Between the National Weather Service radar in Jacksonville to our south and the same radar to our north in Charleston, we're covered, sort of. You see, radar is a straight line signal and by the time that signal reaches overhead, it's scanning the skies at about 60,000 feet. Why is that a problem?

The signals from the two Doppler systems that offer the Savannah viewing area weather coverage cannot follow the curvature of the earth.  And by the time that straight line signal is searching the skies over much or our western most reaches, it's just too high to pick up low altitude events, like the tornado that touched down at Fort Stewart.

"But we train tremendous amounts to get over those limitations so that we can infer what's going on underneath the radar. And we use other radars and we use all of the tools available to us to get around those limitations," said Ron Morales, National Weather Service.

It's not a national Weather Service problem. That agency has worked miracles with the limited resources it receives from the federal government. But when it comes to the reality of weather warnings.

"We certainly are on guard here and ready to respond but, you know, it may be after the fact," said Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn.

"That's a scary proposition when you hear an emergency manager say we can get the help and the warning to you but it may be after the fact," asked WTOC's David Klugh.

"Absolutely. Tornados drop out of the sky at any time you know, depending on the weather. In this area they can hit you very, very quickly," replied Wynn.

Derek Duke is one in an army of what the National Weather Service calls "spotters".  When the potential for severe weather arrives, a smart phone with a weather app can be your lifesaver.

"You can have it where you'll hear it at night, if the weather warning is there," said Duke.

"And that's the issue isn't it? Because you likely not going to get it from radar.  You're going to get it from someone like you," asked Klugh.

Duke replied, "Right."

That spotter training is going on year-round as National Weather Service Meteorologists like Ron Morales travel the Lowcountry and Coastal Empire hoping to draw more into a severely understaffed force of reporters. He will be the first to tell you it's humans who are still the best hope for early warning during potentially deadly weather events.

"For me ideal situations would not just be technology, it would be people. You can never have enough human beings on the ground to see something and get what we call true ground truth," said Morales.

The truth is an additional Doppler radar tower positioned to fill the gap could make all the difference and could better detect lower altitude events like the Fort Stewart tornado. Not likely for an agency that has seen more budget cuts than wind-falls over the last couple decades.

"That is what we're presenting to the National Weather Service right now.  What's it going to take?  What's it going to take to be adequately covered and to have the confidence that if this happens again we'll be able to warn people?" said Georgia U.S. Representative Buddy Carter.

Until that extra help arrives, your chances of surviving a major weather event from Long to Screven Counties will always be more about your preparation, and less about the ability of a radar to not reaction to conditions, not a radar's interpretation of what's happening above you.

"People need to be situationally aware of what's going on around them watching the weather so they can take appropriate action if they do not get a warning," said Wynn.

That's because there's a pretty good chance, that in the event of a tornado, that confirmation will come after the fact. Consider that most counties in our viewing area don't have county-wide siren systems, so that audible warning is out, as well.

Our local meteorologist and the National Weather Service do a great job of warning us all of the conditions that are right for severe weather. But protecting yourself and your family means hyper focusing on the conditions around you, not what the radar high above you might be seeing.

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