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Lack of warning before tornado hit brings up concerns over radar’s blind spots

Updated: Feb. 17, 2021 at 6:22 PM EST
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SHALLOTTE, N.C. (WECT) - Ideally, the National Weather Service likes to issue a tornado watch hours before a storm - warning people that conditions are right for a tornado. But that did not happen with the deadly storm that hit Brunswick County Monday night.

With little warning, a tornado ripped through a Brunswick County neighborhood, killing three people and injuring 10 others.

“The storm prediction center had issued a slight risk for severe weather earlier in the day, and they were highlighting the potential for isolated tornadoes, and damaging wind gusts. And we were also outlining that on a variety of our products such as our area forecast discussions, some of the briefings that we issue to our partners as well,” said Mark Willis of the National Weather Service. “But the storm that developed the tornado in southwest Brunswick County did occur quickly. We initially issued a severe thunderstorm warning as the storm moved on land as we saw some very strong winds from the storm and then ultimately issued a tornado warning.”

In all, there were just six minutes between the severe thunderstorm warning and the time the tornado warning came out as the tornado hit.

The lack of warning before the tornado hit also renewed concerns about the KTLX Doppler radar in Shallotte.

The radar that serves the Cape Fear area was installed in October 1994 and became operational several months later. Over the last 26 years, the trees on the properties near the radar have grown, which has caused some blockage of the radar’s lowest elevation scans.

In 2016, the National Weather Service studied the issue and decided that this tower needs to be moved. It says it’s not feasible to cut down all the trees that would need to be come down to fix the issue but it’s still not clear when the move will happen.

While the current situation is not ideal, the National Weather Service says it utilizes other technology to mitigate the limitations of this Doppler radar.

“It’s one of many tools though,” Willis said. “We have satellite information. We’ve got storm spotters all over. We’ve got weather observations, high resolution models. And it’s one of many tools that we use to get a picture of the atmosphere and help with our mission of protecting life and property”

After a tour of the damaged area Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper was also asked whether his office is aware of the situation with the KTLX doppler radar and whether it possibly affected the response time of the National Weather Service in issuing severe weather warnings.

“Our team at state emergency management is engaged with both the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and we will certainly will go back and look at that with our team specifically to see if there are any issues or concerns,” said Will Ray, chief of staff for N.C. Emergency Management.

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