Politics

$25 million fix proposed for storm forecasting

The White House has unveiled a spending proposal that would pump more than $25 million into badly needed hurricane forecasting equipment, saying the ''extraordinary investment'' is a first step toward strengthening the nation's warning system.

Included in the request are new equipment for hurricane hunter planes, more buoys to track ocean conditions, a redesign of the sensors dropped into storms, repairs to damaged equipment, and most notably, another hurricane hunter plane.

''This request gets us back on track with significant funding for critical repairs and upgrades,'' said Alex Conant, spokesman for the White House budget office.

The proposal, released late Friday, is part of a $17 billion emergency spending package that now goes to Congress, with the White House earmarking most of the money for assistance and rebuilding along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

But tucked into the proposal are critical fixes to some long-standing gaps in equipment -- and budget officials say it's just the start. Another round of hurricane forecasting requests will be made next year.

''Oh, wow -- this is wonderful news,'' said Jim McFadden, who helps oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's specially equipped hurricane hunter planes, which under the proposal would get new devices to track hurricanes.

The equipment gaps were detailed this month in a Herald investigation, ''Blind Eye,'' which reported that forecasters at NOAA's National Hurricane Center and field offices have struggled for years with broken, outdated or unavailable weather-observing equipment.

Although the Hurricane Center has made many accurate predictions, Director Max Mayfield, along with former directors, researchers and government experts, says forecasts for years have been compromised with insufficient weather balloons, hurricane hunter planes, dropwindsondes, radars and buoys.

PLANES DIVERTED

NOAA, for example, has two $15 million turboprop planes with three radars and breakthrough equipment to measure hurricane wind speeds. The planes are better equipped than those flown by the Air Force Reserve for hurricane reconnaissance, but NOAA has diverted them during hurricane season for unrelated research missions.

President Bush's proposal would provide a third plane. McFadden said forecasters and researchers have wanted one for years but the money was never available.

''I think the president realizes that it's time to do something,'' McFadden said. ``It's been pointed out that we could have better forecasts with better equipment.''

The White House request comes at a time when devastating hurricanes are pummeling the United States and the Caribbean at an alarming rate. Nine of the last 11 years have posted above-normal hurricane seasons.

NOAA'S POSITION

While forecasters and others have blamed NOAA for failing to fully support the nation's hurricane warning system, the agency insists that the equipment lapses have been fixed. In a letter to The St. Petersburg Times last week, NOAA chief Conrad Lautenbacher defended the agency.

''Charges of Doppler radars going out in lightning storms, outdated sensors on planes and a lack of coverage from buoys and weather balloons have long since been addressed,'' he said.

Yet earlier this month, while the Hurricane Center struggled to track the perplexing Hurricane Wilma, Mayfield called three countries in the Caribbean to find out why there had been no weather balloon launches, needed to track steering currents and other atmospheric conditions that can move a hurricane.

Mayfield learned that the countries had been waiting for balloons and launching equipment to be delivered by the U.S. government, which signed a bilateral agreement years ago that was designed to protect the Caribbean and provide an early warning for hurricanes in the region.

NOAA's hurricane researchers, meanwhile, say that dropwindsondes -- compact data-gathering instruments released from hurricane hunter planes into storms -- have failed as much as half the time in strong winds before reaching a hurricane's surface. Although some improvements have been made, those failures and others have vexed missions this hurricane season.

In an e-mail to hurricane researchers worldwide, obtained by The Herald, Air Force Reserve officer Richard Henning wrote, ``[Dropwindsonde] failures through this 2005 season have been endemic and it has cost the operational and research communities a ton of valuable data.''

The president's proposal includes money to redesign the dropwindsonde, answering the call of researchers and engineers who say that NOAA has repeatedly denied the request.

The proposal also includes eight new buoys in the Atlantic to collect data about wave height and wind speed. And there is money to install backup power on the government's electronic weather sensors, which measure wind speed and rainfall and help forecasters plot the path of hurricanes on land.

The Herald series reported that the sensors, which number about 70 in Florida alone, shut down in high winds more than 60 times during the 2004 hurricanes. Frustrated Hurricane Center forecasters wrote: ``Instrument failures remain a chronic problem in landfalling hurricanes.''

The White House proposal would provide backup power on 200 sensors in hurricane-prone communities.

The biggest amount earmarked, $9 million, would pay for a third WP-3D Orion, the nation's most advanced hurricane hunter plane. During Hurricane Charley, NOAA diverted one of the two planes to New Hampshire to study air quality.

''Weather officials believe another P3 will be helpful in ensuring coverage given the demands on the other aircraft,'' said Conant, of the White House budget office. ``. . . The extraordinary storms this summer require an extraordinary investment in hurricane forecasting equipment.''

Overall, the White House proposal for NOAA totals $55 million, more than half for hurricane and weatherrelated work, the other portion for other NOAA functions, including fisheries.

Congress now gets the chance to weigh in on the $17 billion spending package, which could be controversial because it redirects some unused money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The proposal also cuts $2 billion from 55 programs that are either designated as low priority or have money left over from 2005.

Meteorologists and researchers said money is also needed to protect radars better from lightning, upgrade NOAA's computers, and perhaps most important to the Hurricane Center, bring on a second Gulfstream jet.

NOAA's lone jet flies in the environment around a hurricane to track steering currents and has been credited with improving track forecasts in computer models by as much as 25 percent. For years, forecasters have wanted a second jet to fly back-to-back missions.

ANOTHER JET AIRPLANE

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said that he was heartened by the White House request, but that he still wants to push for a second jet.

''We're going to get them a jet one way or another,'' he said Saturday. He also said he wants to see the White House redirect money to Hurricane Wilma victims in South Florida. Budget officials say that's now under consideration.

The latest request deals with equipment; it doesn't address NOAA's operating budget. Still needed, meteorologists said, are more flight crews and flight hours for hurricane hunter planes, more Hurricane Center forecasters, more scientists to build a new hurricane computer model, and equipment and staff members for NOAA's Hurricane Research Division in Miami, whose base budget hasn't topped $3.5 million in more than two decades.

''These are long-term problems that are finally being addressed,'' said hurricane research meteorologist Mike Black. ``It's a great start, but there's more to be done.''

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