BRANDON, Miss. (WLBT) - Hundreds living in several counties southwest of Brandon will now have less reliable radar coverage because of a new water tower constructed for the city, according to the National Weather Service.
The water tower, located off North Street, acts as a barrier to the nearby Doppler site, creating a cone of interference that expands across southwest Mississippi and portions of northeastern Louisiana.
An analysis of tornado tracks over the last twenty years shows eight different storms that would have fallen in that blind spot, creating potential hazards for forecasters and residents living there.
“[We’re] losing a perspective that we desperately need, and especially in some of these spots, this is a hot zone for where we see tornadoes -- especially long-track ones,” First Alert meteorologist Patrick Ellis said. “[They] form and then track off toward the north and east, eventually affecting places like Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties.”
Brandon Mayor Butch Lee disputes that claim, citing Nexrad radar that smartphone apps use and nearby radar sites as ways that meteorologists can fill that gap.
“You’ve got radar in Baton Rouge, you’ve got radar in Monroe, you’ve got radar in Hattiesburg and here. All four of those are covering the same distance. So in a patchwork woven like this, all those places are getting radar coverage,” Lee said.
Brandon also falls under a blind spot because of the the location of the Doppler site: radar can’t see weather overhead.
“[That extends for] a three-mile radius,” Lee said. “Basically, none of Brandon has radar coverage.”
Documents obtained by 3 On Your Side show the city formed an interlocal agreement with the U.S. Government in 2002, offering to provide the land for the radar tower for free, which expires in 2021.
Meanwhile, Brandon’s water usage has reached dangerous levels, with the city currently using around 97 percent of its total capacity, Lee said.
In 2019, the city broke ground on two water towers, one of which has already directly impacted radar data from the Brandon site.
NWS had been in negotiations with city leadership over the locations, saying both would create blind spots for residents for hundreds of miles.
Lee said the city changed the size of one tower as a result of those talks, installing a 500,000-gallon tank instead of a million.
The lack of crucial information to those who forecast and track storms for a living means they’ll have to adopt new strategies to keep residents here safe.
“With the fact that we’re going to have this blockage in the lower radials, we know it’s definitely going to mitigate us from seeing the picture clearly,” said Felecia Bowser, a warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS Jackson office. “There will be a reliance on the experience of the meteorologists at the weather service office in Jackson and there’s gonna be a reliance with surrounding radars. That’s just something that we won’t be able to get around anymore.”
Early on, Lee said the radar tower could be moved, but Bowser said the cost associated with that would likely be approximately $5 million.
The mayor even suggests the radar site could be raised approximately seven feet to make the blind spot vanish, basing that height on a 2017 NWS report on the site itself.
Bowser did not have an approximate cost associated with raising the tower, but Ellis said raising the radar would affect coverage across the entire 200-plus mile area.
3 On Your Side asked Lee about the hundreds of residents who would be impacted by that blind spot -- including those in Lorman, parts of Byram, Red Lick and even Ferriday, La. -- and whether better water service to his city was worth the price to others.
“Do we sacrifice ourselves for the greater good? Well, my job as mayor is, I’m elected to take care of the people in Brandon,” Lee said. “The world wants to blame Brandon when Brandon has stood for the world for 18 years to provide this site for free. Help me out here. It does not make sense to me to say, ‘Okay.' It’s time for the world to take care of itself a bit because we’ve gotta take care of our own now.”
Lee said the city actually installed a water well on North Street with the intention of putting a water tower where the radar site sits now, which ended up costing ratepayers unnecessarily.