West Virginia worried about flood warning system

The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislators want to know what state officials are doing to maintain rain, river and temperature gauges across the state that are a critical part of the flood warning system.

"We can't prevent flooding in West Virginia, but I think the very least we can do is provide a warning system," Jim Steele, who administers the flood warning system through the state Office of Emergency Services, said Friday. "Without the gauges, people will die unnecessarily and more property will be damaged because people will not be warned properly."

Steele and Alan Rezek, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Charleston station, plan to address a legislative interim committee on flooding and railroads at a hearing Nov. 8 at the state Capitol.

In September Rezek told lawmakers that as many as 40% of 280 gauges around the state fail to work properly. Since then, state officials, who are responsible for maintenance, have been able to restore about 10% of the gauges by cutting brush, removing pine needles and debris from funnels and changing batteries and solar panels, but 30% still don't work.

"Gauges are critical to our ability to put out timely warnings," Rezek said Friday.

Steele, who administers the flood warning system through the state Office of Emergency Services, blames the gauge problems on a lack of preventative maintenance caused by a fund shortage and a lack of staff.

Most of the gauges are in remote areas atop ridges, which makes servicing them difficult. Steele and one other technician are the only maintenance staff. And each can service no more than two gauges a day.

"There's no way two people can do it; we'll always be behind," Steele said. "We need at least three people to provide proper maintenance."

Over the past few years, the program has operated on about $216,000 in state money and up to $97,000 in money from the National Weather Service.

Steele estimates the state needs about $500,000 for a preventive maintenance program instead of just fixing what's broken.

Maintenance is even more important with the 110 complete meteorological stations that will be built with homeland security funds. While federal money can be used to build the stations, the state must pay for maintenance.

"It doesn't do any good to put advanced equipment out there if we can't maintain it and support it," said George Settles, the former director of the program. "People who care about people in West Virginia understand why this is important."

Rezek said that while radar is one of more powerful tools developed over the years, it provides only estimates of rainfall. The weather service needs data from the gauges to verify what the radar is showing, Rezek said.

"When the raindrops are big, the rainfall estimates are pretty good," he said. "But when the drops are small, really tiny, radar tends to underestimate the rainfall. And in this part of the country, where you've got such rugged topography, we can have heavy rainfall in lower part of clouds that radar may not catch all. In a flooding situation, that puts lives at risk."


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