Failures, few fixes

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has refused requests to upgrade the single most important tool on hurricane hunter planes -- the dropwindsonde -- even though the device has malfunctioned for years.

Dozens of dropwindsondes, equipped with tiny parachutes and a radio transmitter, are released from the planes into storms to collect information about wind speed, temperature, air pressure and humidity. They relay data twice per second; the information is fed to forecasters and their supercomputers.

But dropwindsondes fail at least half the time in strong winds before reaching the storm's surface, according to NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, depriving forecasters of essential information about wind speeds at the most critical location -- near the ground where people actually live.

For example, dropwindsondes failed repeatedly during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Without reliable data, forecasters overestimated wind speeds, predicting a potentially catastrophic storm heading for the southeastern United States.

But when Floyd blew ashore in North Carolina, the storm was far weaker than forecasters predicted. By then, however, two million people had evacuated the East Coast.

Hurricane research meteorologist Mike Black, chief scientist on the Floyd flights, described the ''especially frustrating'' dropwindsonde failures in two mission summaries after the storm. But nothing was ever done.

The technology to fix the problem has been available for years, but Black says NOAA denied requests to provide engineering support, estimated at $1 million, to fix and modernize the device.

Black and hurricane forecasters persuaded the nonprofit National Center for Atmospheric Research to help fix the dropwindsonde. But it continues to fail while being dropped into storms.

Black said the device still has outdated parts and needs to be completely redesigned.