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Many states are setting up their own extensive weather monitoring networks


After extreme weather, people sometimes ask - why weren't there better warnings? A key part of the answer is a lack of data, and states are realizing that can prove deadly, as the warming climate fuels more disasters.

Caroline Eggers of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

CAROLINE EGGERS, BYLINE: Last August, in Waverly, Tennessee, Tammy Shaw and her granddaughter, Hope Collier, were trying to escape when water started spilling under their door. Within minutes, it was up to the ceiling.

TAMMY SHAW: We were trapped in there - in that water.

EGGERS: Then the flood dragged Collier from inside her home to a half mile away. For two hours, her family thought she was dead.

HOPE COLLIER: Everyone was calling everybody, asking if I was OK, and it was just - it was bad.

EGGERS: Twenty people did die in the flooding. That morning, the National Weather Service in Nashville issued what Waverly residents say was only a vague warning about what would become a record-shattering nearly 21 inches of rain. That's because forecasters only had a limited picture of what was happening - one that relied heavily on radar, looking at clouds thousands of feet in the air. But just north of here, in Kentucky, weather experts say they have a better way.

STUART FOSTER: There aren't too many programs out there that you can genuinely say benefit everybody.

EGGERS: That's retired state climatologist Stuart Foster, and he's talking about the Kentucky Mesonet. It's a grid of what will soon be nearly 100 weather monitoring stations across the state. He's showing me the first one built. It looks like a few brutalist sculptures in an open field. But up close, you'd see little weather gadgets. There are anemometers for wind speed, a gauge for rainfall rates...

FOSTER: Then, right on top of here is a pyranometer for monitoring solar radiation.

EGGERS: The system provides a more complete picture of even complicated weather phenomena. For example, the station monitors temperature from underground to 30 feet up to catch when a layer of warm air is trapping cold air below it.

FOSTER: Which is important for agriculture and fog formation and icing and those kinds of things.

EGGERS: When it comes to extreme weather, mesonets give forecasters critical ground-level data in real time. When tornadoes tore through eight states in December, the Kentucky Mesonet was sending data to the National Weather Service every three seconds. John Gordon, Louisville's head meteorologist, says his office would be lost without it.

JOHN GORDON: Having a mesonet will save lives. Having that data allows us to better warn the citizens - to put out more precise warnings.

EGGERS: Also important - Gordon says it shows when warnings are not needed.

GORDON: You know, dear God, I don't want to be the boy who cried wolf.

EGGERS: Mesonets are often built in direct response to severe weather, as in New York after Hurricane Sandy. But there's no direct federal funding for mesonets. It's up to each state to figure it out, and 15 states still don't have them. That includes Tennessee, which just opened an unfunded climate office last year. The state's new climatologist, Andrew Joyner, has made a mesonet his biggest priority.

ANDREW JOYNER: I'm sure we've missed quite a few high-wind and high-rain events across the state simply because we don't have stations in those locations.

EGGERS: He's now looking for grants so Tennessee forecasters won't be flying partly blind during future extreme weather.

For NPR News, I'm Caroline Eggers in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caroline Eggers