BRANDON, Miss. (WLBT) - Data from the National Weather Service shows two tornadoes from Sunday’s severe weather touched down inside an area where little radar data exists, a blind spot created from the construction of a water tower for the city of Brandon last year.
The entire ordeal proved frustrating for members of WLBT’s First Alert Weather Team, who rely on the most up-to-date radar information to keep central Mississippi safe.
Chief Meteorologist Dave Roberts said the tower obstructs approximately 10 percent of the Doppler signal, emitted from a tower on North Street. On Sunday, it also helped to hide a good portion of what they were trying to track.
“That wedge slice represents the area that you can’t see: the actual radar. It’s blocked off. A blind spot, if you will. And this particular tornadic cell, unfortunately, was located in that blind spot for almost its entire lifespan moving across central and southwest Mississippi,” Roberts said.
Brandon Mayor Butch Lee maintains what he told us last year: he believes other radar sites in Monroe and Baton Rouge, La., located hundreds of miles away, can be used to fill those gaps.
“When I’m looking at it on my cell phone, and I’m seeing something that the broadcasters on public TV are not seeing, something’s wrong with this picture, when I’ve got better real time data on my cell phone,” Lee said.
Roberts said they do use different radar tower data for forecasts and severe weather.
“But when you’re talking about a storm that’s getting close to Rankin County, or even into the metro area, this radar is kind of vital,” Roberts said.
At the same time, Lee said he’s all too familiar with radar blockage: the Brandon Doppler site provides radar data for hundreds of thousands of people, yet leaves Brandon itself without coverage.
Doppler radar sites cannot scan directly above or below the site, leaving what’s called a “cone of silence” in the immediate area surrounding the tower.
Lee said he could only imagine resident reaction to getting the tower, which took place after a deadly tornado rocked the city in 1993.
“Everybody here would go, ‘Well, yeah, we want radar here in Brandon,’” Lee said. “But nobody knew that by doing this, you would have zero radar in Brandon.”
Documents obtained by 3 On Your Side showed 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.
Roberts said this is a classic example of the old adage “no good deed goes unpunished.”
“City of Brandon gives the land. We are blessed that we get this radar system so we can see virtually most of the area. Brandon has to give up a little bit of that airspace around the tower because you can’t see the radar returns too close to the tower,” Roberts said. “Then Brandon gets bigger years later, and on that same land decides to put up a water tower, and it acts as a little bit of a block for a sliver of space. That’s really what we’re giving up here.”
Sunday’s storms have also reignited a debate on whether the water tower should be torn down - which Lee said is not a possibility, though he couldn’t speak for aldermen - or whether the radar tower itself should be moved at a potential cost of $5 million.
“It could be something that we may can look into later. But that’s definitely not in our near future plans at this time,” said Felecia Bowser, who serves as a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Jackson office. “People just need to know that [the radar blockage is] not going to prevent us from sending out a warning at all, and we’ll still be able to protect our citizens.”
Meanwhile, Lee said the water tower was essential to his growing city, and even if Sunday’s storms were more severe - the impact of that water tower on central Mississippi radar - isn’t his responsibility.
“We spent six years - this is now seven years - we’ve been communicating with the National Weather Service about this. When is the federal government going to take care of their infrastructure and their resources to better serve the people?“ Lee said. “It’s not a state issues, not a county issue. And it’s not a city of Brandon issue. That’s a federal network of radars around the country. And, you know, maybe it’s time to invest in our federal infrastructure a little bit.”