PAGASA Virac hopeful that “decapitated” Doppler radar could be restored soonest

With its modern Doppler radar at Buenavista, Bato torn off by super typhoon Rolly’s estimated 315-kph gusts, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) in Virac is hoping that the facility could be restored soonest with the help of the Japanese government.

PAGASA Virac officer-in-charge Juan Pantino Jr. said in an interview last Saturday (Nov. 7, 2020) that two teams from the weather agency’s central officer and another team from the Japan Radio Company (JRC), which supplied the radar equipment, will be coming late this week and head straight to Buenavista to assess the damage to the facility and determine the cost of its rehabilitation.

Another team will also be sent here to establish secure communications between the Virac Synoptic Station and the central office. PAGASA Central lost its communications link to its Virac office when the super howler hit the island and was able to contact OIC Pantino through a Legazpi City radio station which linked up to an amateur radio group via Single-Side Band (SSB) radio equipment.

Pantino told the Tribune that all signals from the Doppler radar disappeared at 4:40 A.M. of Nov. 1, 2020, some 10 minutes after Rolly’s eye passed over the facility. At the time, the last reading of the typhoon’s sustained winds was 280 kph, with its minimum central pressure dropping so low that the inked line tracing the readings dropped off the edge of the graphing paper edge.

Nearby residents later told PAGASA personnel that they saw pieces of the radome being torn off by the typhoon’s gusts until the entire dome was gone.

“The whole building was shaking and water was pouring down the cables from the now open radome area,” Pantino recalled.

When the winds subsided, he and the other four weathermen and security guard then discovered the radome missing as well as the parabolic antenna attached to the still intact pedestal.

Debris presumed to be from the radome was spotted in the mountains about 500 meters away while some residents claimed that the others were blown away towards barangay Cagraray.

After securing the facility and some of its damaged equipment and leaving the security guard at his post, the other four personnel headed by Pantino walked some six hours over fallen trees and posts as well as landslides to reach the capital town of Virac.

PAGASA’s Virac Synoptic Station also sustained damage, with its aerovane and communications antenna of the SSB radio broken after an apparent strike by flying debris.

Personnel tried to have the comm lines spliced by hand but the radio could only hear audio message from Manila and could not communicate with it.

For now, Pantino stated, his office will be based at the synoptic station for weather observations and wind speed to be estimated based on barometric readings of atmospheric pressure.

Communications with the central office will be by cellular phone as the weather agency cannot afford the use of a satellite phone. A satphone unit reportedly costs P65,000 each and requires $100 load each time, with each text message costing the user P12 per message.

The loss of the Doppler Radar station in Baras leaves the Bicol region with only the Daet Doppler radar in Camarines Norte to help provide crucial weather data should another tropical cyclone develop close to or head for the region.

Both facilities are part of the P1.7 billion Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) grant to PAGASA, which includes two more Doppler radars in Aparri, Cagayan, and Guiuan, Eastern Samar. The Guiuan facility was also heavily damaged during the onslaught of typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013 but it was rehabilitated by JICA soon after.

The utilization of the Doppler radars helps in mitigating the destruction caused by tropical cyclones and other severe weather occurrences. The equipment will enable PAGASA to conduct more extensive weather monitoring such as detecting the direction of rainfall motion. The technology will also allow PAGASA to issue an hourly public storm signal warning and tropical cyclone information to agencies concerned and improve accuracy of flood forecasts and warnings.

In Catanduanes, the construction of the Buenavista radar tower cost over P300 million and was, with its equipment, is the first of its kind to be built in Asia.

Japanese designers used a solid-state radar system based on an Integrated Circuit (IC), instead of the usual magnetron, to generate radio waves to produce images of excellent quality.

The sensitive meteorological equipment is capable of tracking the amount and movement of rainfall, particularly during typhoons and thunderstorms, within a range of 480 kilometers. It has four major components – a radar system, a data display system, a satellite communications system, and a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT), all enclosed in a radar tower building.

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