Part 1: Faulty equipment and gaps in research have sent hurricane forecasts off course
While hurricanes relentlessly pound America's coastlines, breakdowns in crucial weather-observing equipment are thwarting forecasters at the National Hurricane Center -- the nation's first line of defense against tropical weather -- as they struggle to get a fix on the deadly storms, a Miami Herald investigation found.
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Buoys, weather balloons, radars, ground sensors and hurricane hunter planes, all part of a multibillion-dollar weather-tracking system run by the federal government, have failed forecasters during nearly half of the 45 hurricanes that struck land since 1992.
''It's almost like we're forecasting blind,'' said Pablo Santos, who has pressed for years for more buoys as science officer at the National Weather Service's Miami office, which supports the Hurricane Center during storms. ``We've never really had the equipment to do it.''
The Hurricane Center's own records reveal forecasters have predicted tracks hundreds of miles off course, anticipated weak storms that grew so powerful, entire communities were leveled, and powerful storms that grew so weak, emergency managers evacuated thousands of people from places barely brushed by strong winds.
Some of the problem forecasts occurred in the hours before landfall, stunning communities from the Caribbean to the Gulf Coast to Florida.
Publicly, forecasters at the Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade have long blamed the errors on the limitations of science and the unpredictability of weather. Some storms, to be sure, are particularly erratic and difficult to forecast.
But government records obtained by The Herald reveal some of the most crippling problems are man-made, created by the National Weather Service and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The problems for years have landed at the doorstep of the Hurricane Center, but officials said they kept quiet because they feared for their jobs.
Said former Hurricane Center Director Robert Simpson: ``You could cut your own throat.''
While the nation focuses on the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina, The Herald's investigation explored critical lapses long before Katrina and other storms made landfall, with forecasters struggling to predict the path, strength, size and timing of dangerous hurricanes.
In August, as Katrina steamed toward Florida, budget constraints forced the Hurricane Center to limit missions on the government's $43 million Gulfstream jet, even though it's uniquely equipped to track the steering currents that can alter the course of a storm.
The jet was flown only once before the Florida strike, and during that lone mission, critical data collected about the atmosphere never made it to forecasters because of a computer crash. Ultimately, forecasters missed the steering currents that unexpectedly pushed Katrina south into Miami-Dade County, flooding neighborhoods and wrecking hundreds of homes.
''They could have warned South Dade,'' said hurricane research meteorologist Mike Black, who helped oversee the data on the flights.
A SUDDEN SWING
Problems also frustrated forecasters in 2004 before Hurricane Charley, the fiercest storm to strike Florida since Hurricane Andrew 13 years ago.
As Charley sped through the Caribbean and aimed for Florida's West Coast, weather balloon readings were missing from countries all along its path, leaving hundreds of miles of the atmosphere unmonitored. Three coastal weather-observing stations between the Florida Keys and northwest Florida were malfunctioning, denying forecasters clues about ocean temperature and wind speed.
As with Katrina, the jet was grounded in the make-or-break hours before landfall. Worse: The government's two renowned turboprop planes, rigged with unique equipment to measure wind speeds near the storm's surface, weren't flown at all.
In the end, forecasters were off the mark. They originally predicted Charley striking the Tampa area as a Category 2 storm, but a few hours before landfall, forecasters issued a special advisory shifting the track east and upgrading Charley's strength to a Category 4. The storm battered communities from Punta Gorda to Orlando, killing at least 35 people.
''People weren't expecting that drastic deviation,'' said Black, who acknowledged the forecast could have been improved with more data about steering currents.
Despite the lapses, Hurricane Center forecasters, considered among the nation's best, have improved track forecasts and predicted some storms with precision, their warnings likely saving thousands of lives. No one expects pinpoint accuracy.
But the misses haunt forecasters. On television in recent weeks, Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield, praised for accurate forecasts in the days before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, appeared calm and confident.
But Mayfield, along with four former Hurricane Center directors dating back to Simpson from 1974, acknowledges that equipment gaps have compromised forecasts, including those for Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Erin in 1995 and Mitch in 1998.
Said Mayfield: ``We need help. . . . We need more observation [equipment]. There's no question.''
Weather Service officials counter there's an overlap in coverage, meaning if a radar or buoy fails, another one a few hundred miles away can help. They added that after the 2004 hurricanes, Congress approved a one-time, $20.7 million allotment to fix damaged equipment, add more buoys, upgrade hurricane hunter planes and bolster research.
But forecasters, researchers and other experts say that's not nearly enough to fix the nation's hurricane program.
The Herald's examination of every hurricane that reached land since Andrew, which includes information from audits, e-mails, government databases, maintenance records, accounting reports, congressional testimony, flight logs and the Weather Service's own forecasters, found:
The Weather Service, whose sole mission is to warn the public about severe weather, has failed to repair and upgrade weather-observing equipment crucial to hurricane prediction, saddling forecasters and the supercomputers they rely on with inadequate or incomplete information -- or no information at all.
Buoys have been busted for months, leaving forecasters without information about weather conditions over water. Weather balloons are inoperable or missing, especially in the Caribbean, hampering forecasters trying to gauge conditions over land.
Dropwindsondes, released from hurricane hunter planes to peer inside the depths of storms, fail at least half the time in strong winds -- the very thing they are supposed to measure. With dropwindsondes costing $600 apiece, the government has been losing an estimated $180,000 on bad ones every hurricane season even though the technology to fix the problem has been available for years.
The Weather Service spent almost $2 billion in the 1990s for high-tech Doppler radars and electronic weather sensors only to discover that they die at the most critical time: during severe weather.
Radars allow forecasters to peer inside an approaching hurricane as early as a day before landfall. But lightning has crippled the radars, including Miami's last summer -- twice -- at the height of one of the busiest hurricane seasons on record. A plan to protect the radars from strikes was proposed years ago, but the Weather Service hasn't approved the money.
The weather sensors, which measure wind speed and rainfall and help forecasters plot the path of hurricanes on land, number about 70 in Florida alone. During the four hurricanes that struck the state in 2004, the devices shut down in high winds more than 60 times -- some more than once, records show. The equipment was built without extensive backup power to keep it running during severe weather.
Hurricane Center forecasters noted the problem in their analysis of Hurricane Charley, which disabled 14 weather sensors from Punta Gorda to Boca Raton.
''Instrument failures,'' forecasters wrote in January, ``remain a chronic problem in landfalling hurricanes.''
One of the most important forecasting tools -- NOAA's two hurricane hunter turboprop planes -- is sometimes unavailable when hurricanes strike. The reason: NOAA sends the planes on missions that have little to do with hurricanes. The agency says the planes ''play an integral role in hurricane forecasting'' and are far more advanced than the planes flown by the U.S. Air Force Reserve for hurricane reconnaissance.
But during the last three hurricane seasons, they've been diverted for weeks at a time to study monsoon effects in Mexico, air quality in New England and squall lines in the Midwest.
NOAA's high-flying Gulfstream jet is just as important because it swiftly relays information to forecasters about weather conditions in the environment around hurricanes. During Hurricane Isabel in 2003, forecasters used the jet to resolve a complex steering flow pattern, and with dead-on precision, predicted Isabel's North Carolina landfall. The Gulfstream is so effective that NOAA scientists say it has improved storm-track prediction in the computer models as much as 25 percent.
But the jet is budgeted to fly only 250 hours this season, not nearly enough to get a continuous read on shifty storms. In fact, as Katrina bore down on Florida on Aug. 25, researchers were riled over the Hurricane Center's decision not to fly the jet in the hours before landfall.
''I didn't want to break the bank,'' Mayfield said.
Researcher Black said the reluctance to fly likely weakened the forecast. ''The jet,'' he said, ``might have made a difference.''
Beyond the Florida forecast, Mayfield acknowledges he may have been able to give New Orleans greater advance warning had the jet been flown more than once in the early stages of Katrina to detect steering currents.
It wasn't until Aug. 26 -- about 2 ½ days before the storm's landfall -- that New Orleans was included in the potential strike zone. By then, the jet was flying reguarly to measure the conditions around the hurricane.
While the Hurricane Center struggles without basic tools, the Weather Service and NOAA have mismanaged high-priced projects: paying for defective equipment, battling with contractors, running up costs and delaying important contracts by months or even years.
The Doppler radars, for example, were initially expected to cost $340 million in 1980. Final tab: $1.4 billion. And there are still problems. At some sites, upgrades have been delayed; at others, breakdowns have come at critical times.
''I've actually had to go out there and reboot the radar myself during storms to make it come back up,'' said Weather Service meteorologist and union steward Rodney Hinson, in Greer, S.C.
Meanwhile, NOAA has refused requests to increase funding for its Miami-based Hurricane Research Division even while coastal populations soared and experts warned of busier, deadlier hurricane seasons.
The division has lost top scientists and has been operating with a base budget that hasn't topped $3.5 million in more than two decades.
Hurricane Center and Research Division directors have known for years about the gaps in equipment and research but say they often kept quiet under orders from senior bosses in NOAA, according to five former directors.
Besides the $20 million allotment from Congress last year, NOAA has pumped money into satellite and aircraft upgrades. But to fully arm the Hurricane Center and forecasting field offices with the equipment and research support needed to overcome blind spots, it would take at least $350 million, according to public records and NOAA officials.
Little has been said publicly, however.
In 40 Hurricane Center forecast verification reports reviewed by The Herald, almost nothing has been mentioned about vulnerable radars, the diversion of hurricane hunter planes, dropwindsonde failures, broken buoys, gaps in upper-air observations.
Going public with such problems would have consequences, said former Hurricane Center Director Neil Frank. ''Woe be to me if I phoned a senator,'' said Frank, now a television meteorologist in Houston. 'There was all this internal pressure. I wasn't free to call and say, `We need more money down here.' ''
A 2004 agency memo drives the point home: NOAA chief Conrad Lautenbacher told employees not to talk with lawmakers about budget issues without explicit approval, saying the agency must provide ``a unified message.''
Mayfield, a 33-year NOAA employee, said he has been told repeatedly to work within the bureaucracy's budget process. He's chosen his words carefully, at times drawing criticism from some who say he should have been more outspoken.
''I could be fired,'' Mayfield said.
HIGH IN THE SKY
HAVE THEIR LIMITS
The years of denials and neglect have produced a single, troubling result: compromised forecasts.
The Hurricane Center largely bases its predictions on a dozen different computer models that predict a storm's path and strength. Much of what goes into those models comes from satellites, which provide the grand, horizontal images of hurricanes often shown on television and weather maps.
But most satellites show only the tops of storms, not what's underneath. For that, forecasters and the computer models rely on weather observing devices, including buoys, weather balloons and dropwindsondes. When that data is sparse or nonexistent, the models become skewed and forecasts can go awry.
The lack of weather balloon data, forecasters say, contributed to the flawed forecasts in 1998 during what became one of the deadliest hurricanes in history.
The Hurricane Center predicted Hurricane Mitch would move northwest in the Caribbean when steering currents over the western Gulf of Mexico actually pushed it west and then south.
Mitch settled over Honduras and Nicaragua for days, washing away entire villages and leaving 9,000 people dead.
Forecasters admit they couldn't detect the steering currents because they received only two weather balloon readings from the Caribbean and Mexico, records show. Much of the equipment had failed. The Weather Service agreed years ago to help support launches in Caribbean countries to protect the region as well as provide early storm warnings for the United States.
''They didn't have a chance with those bad forecasts,'' said former Hurricane Center Director Jerry Jarrell, who retired in 2000. ``It's frustrating. You're seeing people die because what you did was not good.''
Faced with blind spots, the Hurricane Center's meteorologists must make educated guesses about the whims of storms -- and that's produced errors.
The uncertainty has also prodded forecasters to issue hurricane warnings stretching hundreds of miles, which has drawn criticism.
Hurricane Center officials say that every hurricane that has struck land, including Charley in 2004, has fallen within warned areas.
But some independent meteorologists and other scientists say those warnings often cover such a broad area that it's nearly impossible for forecasters to make a mistake.
''They've covered their uncertainties,'' said Floyd Hauth, a retired Air Force colonel and meteorologist who has studied the Weather Service for Congress.
Researcher Black believes if the equipment were in place -- and the computer models upgraded to process it -- those uncertainties could be reduced. He estimates track forecasts could improve by 20 percent, intensity forecasts by 50 percent.
Equipment upgrades, including new weather balloons, a second Gulfstream jet and more firepower for NOAA's computers, would run about $300 million, according to cost estimates. Annual expenses, including more flight hours on NOAA's hurricane hunter planes, are $45 million more.
A HUGE STAKE
RELY ON EQUIPMENT
Private meteorologists say those costs are small considering the devastation hurricanes can bring to ill-prepared communities and the nation's economy. Private forecasters have a huge stake in the system: They rely on the Weather Service's equipment to produce hurricane forecasts for airliners, citrus growers, oil companies, cruise lines and the shipping industry.
Mike Smith, founder of Kansas-based WeatherData, said if the Weather Service doesn't provide better weather observation equipment to eliminate blind spots, ``they can't make accurate hurricane forecasts -- and neither can I.''
Weather Service officials counter that equipment is expensive to buy and maintain.
''Could the Hurricane Center do a better job? Yes. . . . But we're working within a resources available environment,'' said Weather Service Chief D.L. Johnson.
'WHAT IN THE WORLD
IS GOING ON HERE?'
Critics say the blame lies with NOAA and Congress. This year, while NOAA's administrative costs grew to $446 million -- $90 million more than last year -- the Weather Service had to cut $37 million from its budget. Put on hold: fixes for equipment and training for forecasters.
Former Hurricane Center Director Frank said those kinds of cuts continue to weaken the nation's warning system against hurricanes.
'People are going to start asking, `What in the world is going on here?' And that's going to turn this thing around,'' he said.
Today, during one of the deadliest hurricane seasons ever, a new buoy in the Caribbean is adrift and isn't scheduled to be put back in place until November. Radars are vulnerable to lightning. Countries across the Caribbean are grounding weather balloons.
And next summer in the height of hurricane season, one of NOAA's hurricane hunter planes heads to Texas -- to study air pollution.