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CASA Radar Credited with Saving Lives and Avoiding Injuries During Texas Tornadoes

Brenda Philips

Brenda Philips

Officials in Ellis County, Texas, are crediting the recently installed radar system created by our Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) with being at least partially responsible for saving lives and greatly reducing injuries during the very dangerous tornado that touched down in the Ellis County town of Midlothian, south of the Dallas/Fort Worth area, during the December 26 Tornado outbreak.

As Ellis County Judge Carol Bush said at a press conference immediately following the tornado, “With the CASA radar system in the Midlothian area, it gives a lot of advanced notice, and we were able to communicate that to the community. And I think that has really assisted in seeing a decrease in injuries.”

National Weather Services (NWS) forecasters in the Fort Worth office, who also have access to CASA data, were able to see the development of the tornado – the “hook” or curly cue that indicates a tornado is happening – on the CASA radar and used that information in their warning communications to emergency managers, media, and other public safety personnel.

“Using CASA data, you could track the path of the tornado down streets and through neighborhoods,” said Brenda Philips, co-director of CASA. “This is an exciting result for us. By analyzing these types of events, we’ll learn how to make warnings better for everyone involved in tornado response, from the NWS and emergency managers to even the public’s decision to take shelter. ”

“The Ellis County judge had at least two press conferences where she credited CASA as part of the region’s emergency preparedness measures and spoke of use of CASA to warn citizens,” said Apoorva Bajaj, innovation manager and industry liaison officer for CASA. “CASA data was used on [December 26] to support public safety in Texas. There were several tornadoes in the region, some in our network, some outside. CASA had the best view of the Midlothian tornado.”

See two press conferences and news coverage here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DY1iWeus9io; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37IqhKNmqV0; http://www.waxahachietx.com/article/20151226/NEWS/151229669

CASA radar is proving revolutionary. This new generation of smaller, highly capable radar systems in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area is able to track with more accuracy the location of tornadoes and other severe weather conditions, such as heavy rain and ice storms, compared to other radar systems. These new CASA systems are spaced much closer together than current NWS radar sensors, which are typically 100 to 200 miles apart. The closer proximity is part of the reason the new systems can catch a tornado that could be missed by current radar.

CASA radars certainly worked in Ellis County. “We live in an area that's tornado alley, and we all know that,” Bush said. “So one of the things we try to do is plan for incidents just like this. Stephanie Parker is the Emergency Management Coordinator for Ellis County, and several of the other cities have their emergency coordinators as well. They work together and go through exercises. We do have a CASA radar system that helps detect tornadoes and severe weather prior to it hitting. And I think that has gone a long way in assisting the public in just understanding the weather we’re experiencing and then having time to access a shelter for safety.”

According to an article in the Waxahachie Daily Light by Managing Editor Shelly Conlon, between 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on December 26, Ellis County had two confirmed tornadoes touch down and seven tornado warnings. The warnings were part of a storm system that moved through North Texas, killing at least eight people, according to multiple Dallas-Fort Worth media outlets.

The Ellis county tornado was rated EF3, but Bush said wind gusts picked up at Midlothian's Mid-Way Regional Airport reached 105 mph. At least 11 tornados were reported across North Texas that Saturday night, according to preliminary reports from the Weather Service.

The CASA radar system is the end product of more than a decade of research and development. With support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center award, the new technology was developed over 10 years by a multidisciplinary group of engineers and scientists at CASA. The center is led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with core partners Colorado State University, University of Oklahoma, University of Puerto Rico, and University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

The planned eight-radar CASA network in North Central Texas is coming about through historic public-private partnerships involving local cities, businesses, educational institutions, and others that chip in to pay for the installation and operation of the new radars. Those institutions include: the North Central Texas Council of Governments; the Fort Worth Department of Public Works; the University of Texas, Arlington; the University of North Texas; the NWS; and technology companies EWR Weather Radar, Ridgeline Instruments, and Paroscientific, Inc. See NSF video on CASA from March 2015: http://engineering.umass.edu/news/nsf-video-pays-tribute-casa-radar-system.

As Judge Bush concluded about the dangerous tornado in Ellis County, “We are so incredibly fortunate that when you have an incident like this, your first thought is what is the damage going to be? And not in terms of property loss, but of people and their lives. We have been blessed and we are so incredibly fortunate that we have not had any life-threatening injuries.” (January 2016)