Crucial radar that failed during Laura is down for Delta. ‘You’re operating blindly.’

Anita Lee
·5 min read

Lake Charles, Louisiana, could take another hit from a major hurricane with Hurricane Delta now threatening, but the city will be without its radar system for the storm, which an experienced meteorologist says is bad news for Gulf Coast residents.

If Hurricane Delta makes landfall near Lake Charles, the city devastated almost six weeks ago by Category 4 Hurricane Laura will be without its sophisticated radar system, NEXRAD.

Laura took out the radar system. It is not expected to be back online until March 2021, the National Weather Service says.

“We’ve got a storm coming in, and that would be the prime radar for it,” said Rocco Calaci, a Gulf Coast meteorologist who helped write specifications for the NEXRAD system in the 1980s.

“Not having NEXRAD in Lake Charles for any period of time degrades the ability of the NWS to provide real-time information and forecasts. This means no coverage for hurricanes, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, rain or any other weather element.”

And the Gulf will have no data from Lake Charles to feed into hurricane models that provide storm forecasts beginning days ahead of landfall. The NEXRAD failure in Lake Charles is one of several radar outages during recent hurricanes.

The National Weather Service is undergoing a $150 million nationwide refurbishment of NEXRAD, which went online in 1992. But the Lake Charles failure was completely storm-caused, the NWS says. Equipment malfunctions caused two outages in Mobile radar — both before and during Category 2 Sally’s landfall Sept. 16.

Radar lesson learned after Hurricane Katrina

Jessica Schultz, deputy director of the NWS Radar Operations Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said Hurricane Laura’s winds pierced the Lake Charles radar system’s radome, dome-shaped housing that sits atop a pedestal and protects the radar antennae. The NWS suspects a flying object pierced the radome, she said.

She said the radome is rated for a 124-mph wind speed. A higher wind rating would mean a thicker covering that would interfere with the antenna’s signal, she said. Lake Charles was only the third radar system damaged by a typhoon or hurricane during the NEXRAD program’s history, Schultz said.

The nearest NEXRAD to Lake Charles is about 49 nautical miles away at Fort Polk in Leesville, Louisiana, Calaci said. The NWS also has NEXRAD in Houston, Slidell and Shreveport.

As Mississippi residents learned after Hurricane Katrina, when NWS wind meters failed during landfall, wind speeds gathered from weather data can be crucial for insurance claims. Private carriers cover only wind damage, not damage from flooding, so wind speeds are essential to demonstrate structural failure from wind as opposed to water.

Calaci well remembers the wind vs. water battles in hundreds of lawsuits against insurance companies because he was an expert witness for homeowners.

Weather service equipment failures

In daily weather newsletters, Calaci has claimed the weather service is under-equipped and undermanned because of budget constraints.

On Sept. 17, he wrote: “As for failure, we saw weather equipment failures from the NEXRAD in Mobile going offline during the height of Sally’s landfall and weather equipment going offline in Mobile, Pensacola and Destin, to name a few. I don’t have any idea why these locations stopped transmitting data, but it’s obvious fail-safe measures are not in place.”

Schultz said she did not know why weather equipment was offline in Pensacola and Destin. In Mobile, she said, a motor failed and had to be replaced with a spare motor on hand the day before Sally’s landfall, causing about six hours of downtime.

An hour after Sally’s landfall, she said, a transmitter went out. The second failure lasted about 10 hours but technicians were able to make the necessary repairs.

While the timing was unfortunate, Schultz said, neither failure was storm-related.

NWS has upkeep program for NEXRAD radar

Although NEXRAD is dated, Schultz said, components are continuously maintained and updated.

“Even though these radars have been in place for 25-plus years, they are not old and aging systems,” she said. “They have been constantly updated. The three agencies have invested to keep these systems running at peak performance for the next two decades to come.”

She said a nationwide refurbishment program, the Service Life Extension Program, started in 2015 and should be finished in 2025.

The program is being overseen by the three agencies responsible for the U.S. radar system, the most sophisticated in the world: the NWS operating under the Department of Commerce, the U.S. .Air Force operating through the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration under the Department of Transportation.

The agencies have a base staff of 132, a number that has remained unchanged for decades, to oversee 159 NEXRAD systems in the U.S. and territories.

Meteorologist Calaci just hopes radar systems perform through Hurricane Delta, which he said Wednesday is shaping up to be a “huge” storm that will affect the entire Louisiana coastline.

“I don’t know why those weather stations went down or why NEXRAD went down,” he said, “but when they’re crashing during hurricanes, what steps are being taken to make sure this doesn’t happen again this year?

“When you lose data, when you lose radar like you did in Mobile and Pensacola, you have no idea what’s happening, plus you have no record of what’s occurred.

“You’re operating blindly.”