Equipment woes vex trackers

As Hurricane Wilma last week grew into the most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield slipped away from the bustle on the forecasting floor to make an urgent request.

While his forecasters worked to predict where Wilma would strike, key countries in the Caribbean weren't launching weather balloons regularly -- or at all -- denying the hurricane center essential information about the atmosphere.

So Mayfield called the meteorological services in Belize, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. His request: Send up the balloons. Forecasters needed them.

With two high-pressure systems competing to push Wilma in different directions, the weather balloons could have given forecasters more insight about the hurricane's turn, timing and course toward Florida.

Problem was, the countries had been waiting for balloons and launching equipment from the U.S. government, which signed a bilateral agreement years ago designed to help protect those countries and to give the United States an early warning for hurricanes in the Caribbean.

''I wasn't sure what the holdup was,'' Mayfield said. ``The [launches] were noticeably absent here, from all over.''

The lack of balloon launches wasn't the only problem forecasters faced as they struggled to get a fix on one of the most perplexing hurricanes of the season: The satellite communication system malfunctioned aboard a U.S. turboprop hurricane hunter plane Thursday as Wilma drifted toward the Yucatán, denying forecasters a steady stream of data.


Meteorologists on board, in a quick fix, were forced to call in basic information. On the ground, a scientist from the Miami-based Hurricane Research Division rushed to find an engineer, who wrote a computer program to download more data.

Though the 20-year-old communication system was repaired Friday, forecasters over the weekend faced a new challenge: The government's high-flying hurricane hunter jet was grounded Saturday night and Sunday morning in Georgia for mandatory maintenance, about 24 to 36 hours before Wilma was expected to strike Florida.

''We have a record-breaking storm. It's amazing. You'd think the government would be pulling out all the stops,'' said Rodger Getz, a former National Weather Service meteorologist who now runs an Alabama weather company called AWIS.

The equipment problems underscore the widespread breakdowns detailed in a Herald investigation, Blind Eye, published this month.

The stories reported that forecasters have struggled for years with broken, outdated or unavailable weather-observing equipment, including weather balloons, hurricane hunter planes, dropwindsondes and buoys. A lack of support for hurricane research, meanwhile, has delayed strides in the science.

The hurricane center has made a series of good predictions, saving lives and property. But Mayfield and former directors dating to Robert Simpson in the 1970s, along with researchers, government experts and private meteorologists, say the lapses have compromised forecasts.


The jet, for example, is credited by scientists with improving track forecasts in computer models by as much as 25 percent. For years, forecasters and researchers have wanted a second jet and additional crews to fly more regular, back-to-back missions.

Saturday night, the lone jet flew to Savannah, Ga., for 12 hours of maintenance -- required after 150 hours in flight.

Last Wednesday, hurricane center managers canceled a daytime flight into Wilma so the plane could fly several more missions before heading to Savannah.

Mayfield said he could not speculate on what the jet's grounding would mean to forecasts. The jet flies in the environment around a storm, tracking such conditions as steering currents that guide hurricanes.

In response to The Herald's investigation, key members of Congress, including Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Clay Shaw, vow to fight for more support for hurricane forecasting and research.

On CNN Sunday, host Wolf Blitzer cited The Herald's series during an interview with Nelson, who said he has already contacted leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

''I've been assured that we will stop these cuts in funding and get the additional funding we need,'' Nelson said.


Researchers, forecasters and other experts say fully upgrading the nation's hurricane warning system cost an estimated $350 million, including some annual costs.

The White House is expected to deliver a supplemental funding bill within weeks that could address some of the problems. Congress will have the opportunity to add to the bill.

Upgrades would not only help the hurricane center and weather service offices nationwide, but private weather companies, which rely on the government's data to craft hurricane forecasts for clients that include airliners, utility companies, citrus growers and cruise lines.

Last week, officials at two weather companies contacted by The Herald said they were also concerned about the loss of weather balloon observations near Wilma's path.

In addition to the three countries cited by Mayfield, a Herald review found countries including the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama, Antigua, Costa Rica, Cuba and Honduras launched few or no balloons. Mayfield added that he also called Honduras learned the country needed launch equipment, though he said it's not one of the places the U.S. had pledged support.

Three former hurricane center directors called the lack of data from the Caribbean troubling. Former director Jerry Jarrell said Wilma's path was similar to the one taken by deadly Hurricane Mitch in 1998 -- during that storm, too, few countries in the region launched weather balloons. Jarrell said the forecasts suffered.

He worried about Wilma as well.

''This storm is not as predictable as we'd like, and part of the problem may be that we don't have data from down there,'' he said. ``Storms move in a stream of air. If you don't know what that stream of air is like, then you don't have much of a chance of forecasting it right.''

The jet also tracks steering currents, and it was flown in the region regularly starting Wednesday night. But the jet can't sample the entire region and generally doesn't monitor conditions over areas where balloon launches are supposed to occur.

So Mayfield made his calls Thursday.

He said the Cayman Islands were waiting on a hydrogen generator, used to fuel the balloons. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 had destroyed the generator there. Jamaica had just received a shipment of balloons; so had Belize.

A spokesman from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would not comment about the bilateral agreement or the equipment issues in the Caribbean, instead referring questions to the hurricane center.

Mayfield's call to Belize paid off: The country launched four balloons on both Friday and Saturday. Jamaica launched three over the two days.

There were no launches, however, in the Cayman Islands.

Herald staff writer Frank Davies contributed to this report.