MOBILE, Alabama — new storm surge sensors in Mobile County will produce real-time information about water levels that emergency management officials and weather forecasters say will play a crucial role in evacuating residents as a hurricane approaches.
It’s the first time the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has deployed the cutting-edge microwave radar sensors for operational use, according to NOAA oceanographer Robert Heitsenrether. The sensors will not be located in the water, which will help prevent them from getting damaged.
The network of five sensors will provide immediate, more precise water level numbers as surge moves in ahead of a storm. Information will be available online right away so residents can monitor water level changes and prepare to leave earlier. Information will also be fed into computer models, allowing emergency officials to better plan evacuations.
“It trumps everything that’s out there,” Mobile County Commissioner Mike Dean said of the technology.
Data gathered will also be archived and used to improve computer models during future storms — a huge plus to the system, according to Heitsenrether and Jeff Garmon, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mobile.
“It will help the computers learn and get smarter,” Garmon said. “That’s the big payoff.”
The sensors are being paid for through a $600,000 NOAA grant, secured for the county by one of its engineers. The grant was funded by Congress with the help of U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala., whose district includes Mobile County.
Mobile County spokeswoman Nancy Johnson said sensors are being installed at Dog River, East Fowl River, West Fowl River, Bayou La Batre and Chickasabogue Park. They should be calibrated and ready to go in the next couple of months.
“By fall, the data will be on the Web for everyone to see,” she said.
Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. The Dog River and Bayou La Batre are among the areas that flood severely when tropical systems strike south Alabama. Hurricanes are ranked from Category 1, the weakest, to Category 5, the strongest.
The sensors, which are solar-powered, are secured to bridges and support structures about 20 to 25 feet above the mean sea level, Heitsenrether said.
The availability of existing places to attach the sensors out of the water, he added, is one of the reasons Mobile was selected for the initial deployment. he said the devices should be able to survive a Category 5 storm surge.
While NOAA uses existing water level monitors in and around the Gulf of Mexico, the microwave radar sensors provide a more complete picture of what’s happening in a place such as Mobile Bay, which features a complex system of tributaries and other waterways.
Johnson said water level information generated by the sensors will be used “primarily for safety reasons” but can also be used for other purposes, for example, assisting ships navigating waterways.