BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - For the second time in less than six months, much of south Louisiana was left without reliable radar coverage in the midst of an ongoing severe weather event Thursday, August 4.
Big storms rolling through the region delivered a lightning strike to the National Weather Service Doppler Radar in Slidell that took it out of commission for more than an hour.
I previously wrote a detailed post in the wake of the record tornado outbreak in late February about how poor radar coverage and a lack of redundancy may be putting lives at risk in parts of south Louisiana. In the midst of that historic outbreak, a lightning strike also took out the radar in Slidell. After reading that post, Congressman Charles Boustany and his staff drafted legislation that would attempt to give metro Baton Rouge and much of south Louisiana better radar coverage.
3:18 p.m. - Radar down
The National Weather Service sent out notice at 3:18 p.m. on Thursday that the radar in Slidell was down until further notice. While the message below doesn't state it, forecasters quickly let us know in a closed chat room (open to media, emergency managers, etc.) that the culprit was lightning.
~3:30 p.m. - Funnel cloud/tornado reported in New Orleans
Roughly 10 - 15 minutes after lightning took out the radar in Slidell, images and videos quickly started surfacing on social media showing a funnel cloud and possible tornado over New Orleans.
3:35 p.m. - Severe T-Storm Warning issued for New Orleans
Minutes after pictures of the funnel cloud and tornado started circulating on social media, the first Severe T-Storm Warning was issued for New Orleans. In other words, it appears as though the first warning came after the tornado had already touched down and done its damage. And it wasn't a Tornado Warning, but rather a Severe T-Storm Warning relaying the potential for 60 mile per hour winds.
To be fair, post-storm surveys rated the tornado an EF-0, the weakest rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale, with maximum winds estimated around 80 miles per hour. These tornadoes are generally brief and small and can easily escape radar detection. However, I think it's fair to consider whether the radar outage in Slidell hampered the ability of the National Weather Service forecasters to issue warnings in a timely fashion on this storm.
Forecasters were likely monitoring a less powerful terminal Doppler Radar in St. Charles Parish whose primary mission is to cover weather around Louis Armstrong Airport in Kenner, but it's unclear what, if anything, that radar was detecting at the time of the New Orleans storms. Otherwise, the next best view would have come from a radar roughly 125 miles away in Mobile versus 25 miles away in Slidell.
4:12 p.m. - Severe T-Storm Warning issued for East Baton Rouge
This one I've referred to as the bogus warning of the day. That's not a slam on my colleagues at the National Weather Service. Rather, with the radar outage in Slidell, there simply is not a good backup view of what's happening in Baton Rouge. The terminal Doppler Radar in St. Charles doesn't have the range to cover our area. The next closest radars are 120 miles (Fort Polk), 130 miles (Lake Charles), and 180 miles (Mobile, AL) away from downtown Baton Rouge.
Forecasters admitted on that day that the warning was issued out of an abundance of caution given what had already occurred with the severe weather in New Orleans and other storms on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain that had produced wind gusts of 55 mph - 65 mph. As it turned out, it was more of a garden-variety type storm and I strongly believe would have never received a warning had the radar in Slidell been functioning.
4:39 p.m. - Radar returned to service
Hats off to the technicians at the National Weather Service in Slidell who were able to get the radar back online less than two hours after it took the hit. However, at this point, the severe weather was essentially ending around the area, meaning the radar was out of service when it was needed most. And at least it was restored quicker than the February 23 lightning strike, which had the radar down for the better part of a day.
But we're back to what I posted about in the wake of the February tornado outbreak. Metro Baton Rouge and much of south Louisiana have relatively poor radar coverage and once the radar in Slidell goes down, forecasters are almost flying blind. That's a scary thought for an area prone to so much active weather.
I hope that this will once again draw some needed attention to our radar vulnerability and help garner some additional support for Boustany's bill that would attempt to fill in this coverage gap here and elsewhere around the country.
Click here to track the progress of Boustany's 'RADAR Act'