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Duping the Dopplers

Richmond was caught off guard in Gaston's sudden attack. Are meteorologists to blame?


Last year, when Isabel turned Richmond into a Mad Max movie, the National Weather Service's network of high-powered Dopplers told us a week in advance when and where the storm would hit.

So it seems logical to assume the almighty ball should eat storms like Gaston and Frances for breakfast. In the early morning sun Monday, Aug. 30, Gaston was a piddly tropical drizzler — seemingly business as usual for one of the wettest Augusts on record. A couple inches of rain? Just grab your slicker on the way out.

Not quite.

And so last week, as bulldozers dug Shockoe Bottom out from underneath layers of sludge and sewage deposited by nearly 10 feet of gushing flood waters, a particularly recurring refrain went something like this: "What the hell happened to the Doppler Storm Team?" How can a U.S.A. basketball squad full of NBA stars lose to Puerto Rico? How could it happen so quickly with so little warning?

"The weather forecasting was horrible," hoots former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Richmond mayoral candidate, searching for answers in the hallway of the Omni Hotel, while city leaders address a steamy, stinky room of displaced Shockoe Bottom residents and business owners.

Bill Sammler, the warning coordination meteorologist at the forecast office in Wakefield, is a bit defensive. He talks loudly and over top of you, to pound home his point: This wasn't the fault of the meteorologists. Indeed, Sammler issued the first flash-flood warning for Richmond, meant to indicate potentially life-threatening water levels, at precisely 3:58 p.m. It's the four-alarm fire of flood warnings. See it, hear it, run for your lives.

Sammler's team didn't "miss" this storm, he says. The people just didn't listen.

"You've got to be a little bit careful about using the word 'missing,'" he says in a professorial tone. "Mesoscale features [aspects of weather systems smaller than synoptic-scale systems but larger than storm-scale systems, according to a National Weather Service Web site] are virtually impossible to predict ahead of time. We missed the intensity of the rainfall," he says, but not the storm itself.

Turns out a patch of wind coming in from the east trapped the densest part of Gaston, which produced the most rain, directly over the city and surrounding counties. Another key factor, Sammler says: Clear, sunny skies earlier that morning heated the atmosphere, making it unstable. In the Carolinas, Gaston rumbled through mostly cloudy skies, which produced less instability and less rainfall.

The direction of a storm is easy to predict, but gauging the innards of the storm is more difficult. How much will it rain? Where will the tornadoes touch down? Doppler can't predict that 24 hours, or even 12 hours, in advance, Sammler says. And with Gaston, when the warnings did come, few people leapt into action. Weather typically doesn't move people unless it involves high winds, ice or snow. A light dusting of snow can clear the shelves at Ukrop's, but nobody freaks out over rain.

All the local television stations predicted much smaller amounts of rain earlier that Monday and throughout the preceding weekend. It was only when the storm slowed down that real problems arose.

WRIC-TV 8 contracts with the National Weather Service for its Doppler services. (Because the station doesn't have its own radar, it pays for premium service from Wakefield, or "Package Two.") Station General Manager Bob Peterson says he got a little jittery when meteorologist Matt DiNardo, taking the hot seat for a vacationing John Bernier, began calling for intense rain until midnight — at 2:30 Monday afternoon.

"I'm thinking to myself, You're going out on a limb there, fella," Peterson recalls.

DiNardo pegged it better than most. Channel 8 didn't miss a beat, Peterson says, with DiNardo calling for 2 to 3 inches of rain per hour around lunchtime. "I don't think they should be casting blame on the meteorologists," Peterson says.

But people were looking for somewhere to place blame last week, with eight people dead as a result of the storm and much more than $60 million in damage to the city alone. The meteorologists seemed to be the easiest target.

Did the news media do a poor job of selling viewers on the dangers of rain? Would it have made much difference if the Dock Street Pump Station, which pumps rainwater under the floodwall, hadn't lost electricity? Does the city need to buy a bigger retention basin? (The one that overflowed could handle 44 million gallons.) Are we building roads on weak soil?

The destruction to personal property probably couldn't have been avoided. It was, after all, the second heaviest six-hour rainfall in metro Richmond's history, recording 6.68 inches of rain at Richmond International Airport. Unofficially, it may have been the heaviest. Some parts of the city got more than 10 inches of rain.

Dopplers be damned — Gaston gave Richmond an old-fashioned lesson in humility. Perhaps we take weather forecasting for granted. If Wakefield issues a warning, no matter how routine it may seem, perhaps we'll perk up next time.

"The smaller the scale, the harder it is to predict," says Anthony Siebers, meteorologist-in-charge in Wakefield. "With an inland storm, you tend to let your guard down." S

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