(This story was updated late Monday afternoon to add statements from the FAA and National Weather Service.)
The radar, located in the mountains of south central Puerto Rico — about 20 miles from San Juan, scanned the sky in all directions and signaled to forecasters exactly where rain was located, how heavy it was and where it was headed. It could also detect damaging winds. But just before 6 a.m. Sept. 20, it abruptly stopped operating just as the Category 4 behemoth and its violent winds slammed into the island.
Photos posted to Twitter by the National Weather Service office in San Juan show all that remains of the radar is the tower to which it was connected. The dome, which housed the radar scanner, is gone — completely severed from the mount.
“[W]e currently have no estimate for restoration of the radar,” Susan Buchanan, a National Weather Service spokeswoman, said in an email to The Washington Post. “We are estimating it could take at least 30 days to properly assess the condition of the radar itself and the surrounding infrastructure of the island. Impassable roads and bridges would delay both the assessment and restoration. Once we can assess the radar, we will have a better idea of a repair timeline.”
“We have not been in a situation like this before,” she added.
The radar, while relied upon by forecasters at the National Weather Service, is owned and operated by the Federal Aviation Administration. “We are currently performing a detailed damage assessment of the [radar] system to determine the necessary repairs,” the FAA said in a statement, noting it does yet not have a timeline.
In an apparent attempt at humor, the Weather Service also posted this statement: “[The radar] was abused by Maria. As a result the radome divorced the tower and ran away with one dependent, the antenna. Reconciliation will hopefully be completed in 3 to 6 months. Maria fled the scene heading northwest. She is considered armed and dangerous–do not attempt to apprehend.”
With the radar down for an indefinite amount of time, forecasters lack a critical tool for tracking storms. John Morales, who was a lead forecaster at the National Weather Service’s San Juan office in the 1990s, called the implications “gigantic.”
“It sends us back to the Third World,” said Morales, now the chief meteorologist for the NBC television affiliate in Miami.
Morales, a Puerto Rico native, explained that the island frequently experiences rainfall that is intensified by its complex topography. “Tropical rainfall rates can slide into the excessive range quite easily,” he said. “In terms of [issuing] flash flood warnings, it’s a tremendous detriment not to have radar.”
He said the lack of radar in the Dominican Republic and Haiti has long made it extremely difficult for those countries to issue timely warnings. Now he’s concerned about what will happen if another tropical weather system moves into Puerto Rico or elsewhere in the eastern Caribbean.
Between Antigua and Cuba, the only two places with functioning radar, there’s an enormous void. “It’s a huge deal,” Morales said.
Puerto Rico has a second weather radar, located at the airport in San Juan (also operated by the Federal Aviation Administration), but it is down as well. Even if it can be quickly restored, “it’s designed for coverage of the airport, not into the mountains,” Morales said. “There’s still a problem.”
Meteorologists must now rely on other tools in their arsenal for issuing forecasts and warnings. For Puerto Rico, that responsibility has fallen to the National Weather Service office in Miami, which has taken over operations while the office in San Juan recovers from communications outages brought about by the storm.
Despite the lack of radar information, Larry Kelly, a meteorologist at the Miami office, was unfazed. He said in an interview with The Post that his office is monitoring storms using detailed information from GOES-16, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s next-generation weather satellite, as well as other tools.
“We still have a lot of data,” Kelly said. “There are many satellite data channels coming in, and we also have a lightning network. We know where cloud tops are colder, and that’s where there are stronger storms. And we have observations on the ground that we can use for verification.”
He said the Miami office is in “constant” communication with both forecasters at the Puerto Rico office and emergency management officials. “We’re here to serve the people of the Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” he said. “As long as they need us, we’ll be here. We have each other’s back.”