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Storm warnings for ships

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 05:21 AM

The trip from McKay Bay to the Sunshine Skyway in a chugging freighter can take as long as five hours, so the weather along the way can change a couple of times.

It could be sunny and balmy in Tampa while thunderous storms rage near Egmont Key, said Capt. Mike Buffington, a harbor pilot for the Port of Tampa. Ships heading in and out of the port travel some 42 miles to get to the Gulf of Mexico.

So the new initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service to provide real-time, pinpoint weather analysis to harbor pilots guiding ships on marine routes through the Bay is being warmly received.

"Our whole purpose is to bring ships in and out safely," said Buffington, who has piloted ships in Tampa Bay for 30 years. "Weather conditions are very important."

The National Weather Service last week announced its pilot project for the Bay region. It dedicates three emergency weather specialists as liaisons to port officials, state and local decision-makers during extreme weather.

Such weather can range from hurricanes and storm surge to high winds and tornadoes. It is designed to deliver real-time weather and hydrologic data to people who have to make such decisions as ordering evacuations or sending cruise ships to sea.

Two of the six U.S. pilot programs are on the Gulf of Mexico coast, where violent weather often occurs. The other program is in New Orleans, said Brian LaMarre, who heads the National Weather Service station in Ruskin.

The project is part of the Weather-Ready Nation initiative that began two years ago. Tampa Bay's unique ecology and its massive port operations were determining factors in implementing the program here, he said.

The region is no stranger to severe weather. Just over a year ago, nine tornadoes traipsed around the area. In 2008, torrential storms canceled the Gasparilla Children's Parade.

The early morning Interstate 4 pileup five years ago that killed dozens of motorists was blamed on smoke from a Florida Division of Forestry controlled burn combined with morning fog to create poor visibility. LaMarre said that might have been averted if the Weather-Ready Nation program had been implemented.

The program doesn't cost extra money because it uses meteorologists and hydrologists within the service. That means oil or fuel spills, red tide and other algae blooms can be tracked and their paths perhaps someday precisely predicted.

Hurricanes will play a big part in the program, though the last time a hurricane struck Tampa Bay squarely was on Oct. 25, 1921. Much of the focus of being weather-ready along the Florida coast is being prepared for the big blow.

Hurricane season begins June 1, and storm surge predictions are one of the top priorities of the project, he said.

Port officials welcome the initiative, said Larry Bagby, superintendent of operations. "We think the Weather-Ready Nation is the biggest improvement to maritime operations that we've ever seen."

Collaboration between the port and the service always has been good, he said, but it will improve with the weather specialists whose sole job is to pass along real-time data.

Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Preston Cook hailed the program as a potential lifesaver. His agency has offered input setting up the project. The increased weather service staff is a bonus, he said.

The use of technology sometimes takes over, he said. "For us, ( hiring dedicated weather specialists) is huge," he said. "It's great for us to directly deal with a person who we can relate to, who we can pick up the phone and talk to."

He noted smoke from wildfires near Jacksonville that shrouded Tampa area residents heading to work last month. The pilot program could have alerted emergency managers maybe a day before. "It would have been important for us to get the word out early to the school board and to the citizens about the smoke," he said.


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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