Disabled by lightning

The National Weather Service concluded a decade ago that the nation's network of Doppler radars needed more protection from disabling lightning strikes.

It hasn't happened yet.

Radars allow forecasters to start tracking a hurricane when it's still 250 miles out at sea and help forecasters spot tornadoes spawned by storms -- there were 321 last hurricane season alone.

But lightning has struck the radars during severe weather. Last summer in Miami, it happened twice.

The Weather Service has made some modifications, but a plan to rig the radars with fiber optic cabling is still under consideration.

Radar chief Richard Vogt said the issue is the cost: $3.5 million.

''It's been talked about for a long time,'' Vogt said.

``It's resources. . . . You only have so much money and people to go around.''

Forecasters say it's a small price to pay given the alternative: busted radars when hurricanes strike.

In 1995, while forecasters worked frantically to track Hurricane Opal in the Gulf of Mexico, lightning broke the nearest radar in Mobile.

Forecasters say the radar could have helped detect Opal's unexpected weakening in the hours before landfall.

Fearing a Category 4 storm, thousands of people tried to flee at the last minute; gridlock on the highways forced some to abandon their cars and run for cover while the storm bore down on the Panhandle.

Opal hit as a borderline Category 2-3 hurricane.

The radar outage also limited forecasters' ability to issue frequent tornado warnings.

A Weather Service report after Opal pointed out the lapse and the tornado that killed a 76-year-old woman outside Pensacola.

''One of these days,'' said Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield, ``we're going to get a strong enough tornado . . . and it's going to take out a lot of people.''