Bid to build modern weather radar in Charlotte stalls

A truck-mounted radar instrument called the Doppler On Wheels is silhouetted against cloudy skies.
A truck-mounted radar instrument called the Doppler On Wheels is silhouetted against cloudy skies. AP

Efforts to build a sophisticated radar system in the Charlotte area to warn residents of approaching tornadoes and other violent weather has been bogged down by a lengthy delay in the completion of a congressionally-mandated study.

With a population of 2.4 million people, Charlotte is the nation’s largest metropolitan area without a Doppler radar system.

The study was supposed to be ready nearly six months ago, but has stalled in part because the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, signed by President Donald Trump last April, was broadened. Instead of simply ordering a study into radar gaps over large metropolitan areas such as Charlotte, it was changed to require a report on radar gaps nationwide.

Susan Buchanan, a National Weather Service spokeswoman, told McClatchy in an email that the agency is working on the report.

“We take the direction seriously and are currently drafting our analysis per the legislation,” she said.

Currently, Charlotte is covered by a Doppler radar system in Greer, S.C., 94 miles away. The National Weather Service temporarily took that system down for a few days last month for transmitter refurbishment.

The Charlotte area was covered by radar stations in Columbia, S.C., Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and Raleigh while the repairs were being done.

A time lapse video shows a tornado forming and touching down in Iredell County, N.C. Thursday afternoon, May 24, 2017 as severe weather moved through that area.

On March 3, 2012, a tornado with 135 mph winds ripped through a section of northeastern Charlotte and swept a 7-year-old boy from his bed to an embankment along Interstate 485, more than 100 yards away. It deposited his 5-year-old sister in a neighbor’s yard.

“Important public safety information is routinely missed in this area due to lack of coverage,” Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., wrote in a Feb. 14, 2018 letter to National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini.

He said the agency “even failed to identify a tornado until 10 minutes after it had ended in Mecklenburg County on March 3, 2012.”

Carolina lawmakers have found strong congressional support in their bids for help.

Pittenger won House approval in April to include the study within the weather bill and require that it be completed within 180 days of the bill’s passage.

The Senate passed a similar weather bill last March with a provision sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. instructing the weather service to find solutions to Charlotte’s radar gap.

Pittenger followed up his letter to Uccellini last month with another Thursday requesting a meeting to inquire why the study isn’t finished.

Van Barbour of Willow Spring, NC captured a large hail falling as one of several severe thunderstorms moved through the Triangle Friday evening, Sept. 1, 2017.

“As you know from previous letters, the Charlotte metropolitan area is the largest in the United States without local National Weather Service radar coverage,” Pittenger said. “Given that the congressionally imposed deadline for the study’s completion has passed by 150 days, I write to formally request a meeting to address the reason for this delay as soon as possible.”

Pittenger said Congress bears some responsibility for the delay. He said the House Science, Space and Technology Committee modified language in the bill to request radar gaps anywhere in the United States, not just large uncovered major population centers like Charlotte.

But, he added, “they’re still six months late...All the study is going to do is verify and validate all that we know is true.”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas