Letro: 'We can see tornadoes forming'

But the new radar and other equipment will do a lot more than provide a more accurate forecast for potential hurricane damage. It's already paid off in this area, accurately forecasting a recent tornado in Putnam County and providing much more accurate information about serious lightning and thunderstorms.

"The old radar took one slice out of a storm,'' said Steve Letro, the meteorologist-in-charge of the Jacksonville weather office. ``But thunderstorms are vertical. The Doppler radar operates at several different angles, allowing us to see several layers of the storm.''

That way, meteorologists can see the more severe part of the storm as it builds up higher in the atmosphere.

"We can look into thunderstorms and see circulation develop,'' Letro said. "We can see tornadoes forming.''

The new radar can also give meteorologists a better picture of what's happening in dry weather. While the old radar needed to bounce off something like rain clouds, the Doppler can see dry weather fronts because it's much more sensitive to wind currents.

"We can view sea breezes, which is really helpful when trying to predict afternoon North Florida thunderstorms,'' he said.

By looking at the intensity of sea breezes early in the day, meteorologists can tell how much ocean moisture will build up over the state during the course of the day. Helping the Doppler radar is a new automated surface operations system, a computer that takes in all the information that the weather service equipment is collecting.

``It can watch the weather without having to have a human monitor the equipment constantly,'' Letro said.

And that computer helps the meteorologists analyze the weather more accurately. But back to hurricanes, the same technology that allows meteorologists to see inside thunderstorms allows them to see inside hurricanes.

"The hurricane center's main job is to predict where it's going to go, when and how strong it will be,'' Letro said. "Once that hurricane or tropical storm starts approaching the coastline, we can provide specifics about where the heaviest rain and highest tides will be by using the Doppler. Our Doppler's capacity is about 125 miles.''

That information is critical to people like Craig Fugate, Alachua County's emergency manager.

"It certainly helps us to know in advance what parts of the county may be hardest hit,'' Fugate said. "Even at shelters, if we know something strong is coming, we can call there and tell shelter managers to get people to more secure areas.''