updated 5/16/2007 4:44:17 PM ET 2007-05-16T20:44:17

A weather-tracking project could improve the warnings given to West Coast residents often in harm’s way from vicious Pacific storms. The project will begin tracking storms as far as 620 miles out to sea and ranging from Southern California to Washington state.

IN 1998, related research predicted the effects of a storm hours before it slammed the shore. After a three-year break to analyze data and refine research methods, the program resumed this week with a demonstration Tuesday in Monterey.

To track the earlier storm, the National Weather Service borrowed a few pages from its tropical storm notebook and a plane from its hurricane-hunting fleet.

The improved tracking led to alarms sounding well before the storm roared onto northern California’s Monterey Peninsula.

“The additional data from the aircraft in the storm offshore helped a forecaster decide to issue a flash-flood warning that gave six hours lead time for flash flooding in the region around Santa Cruz,” weather service researcher Marty Ralph said. “It was a record-breaking flood.”

Pacific disturbances form and grow over areas of the ocean largely unmonitored by weather sensors. While they can be tracked by satellites and weather radar, the speed of their winds just above the earth’s surface and their moisture content are hard to assess.

Under PACJET, funded by $2 million from the weather service, a P-3 Orion plane will make 20 flights between now and March 3 from its base in Monterey.

While California is far more notorious for its earthquakes than its storms, Ralph said that over the past three decades the average annual toll has been about 10 deaths and just under $1 billion in damage.

Researchers say the project could benefit more than just the West Coast, because Pacific storms often push east and develop into the next Midwest blizzard.

“What’s going on out there doesn’t just impact the West Coast. It has an impact for much of the country, all around the world,” said Greg Forbes, an expert on severe storms at The Weather Channel.

Tom Maruyama, who heads the Office of Emergency Services in flood-prone San Mateo County, said PACJET could save lives.

Because of the improved tracking during the 1998 storm, search and rescue crews were in position to save an estimated 129 people from flooding and mud slides. One man died when a tree fell on his house.

“We believe that because of (the) heads-up we were able to rescue that number of people,” Maruyama said. “This is the first time we were able to take scientific data and bring it down to the emergency response level.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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