WASHINGTON - A group of influential U.S. senators convinced Congress this week to help shore up the nation's storm-warning system with new equipment and four more forecasters for the National Hurricane Center -- the most significant staff increase in years.
The 2006 budget pumps millions of dollars into the prediction of severe weather, including hurricanes, though it's not nearly what forecasters and researchers say they need to better predict the path and strength of threatening storms.
But lawmakers say it's a start.
The budget comes three weeks after the White House, in a separate measure, proposed more than $25 million in emergency spending on hurricane forecasting tools, including 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.
LIST WOULD GROW
That list would grow with the upgrades passed by Congress this week. The budget now heads to the President for final approval.
''In this tight budgetary time, for us to get what we've gotten, I'm very, very happy,'' said Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat.
The passage of the storm improvements ends a weeks-long, behind-the-scenes push by several key senators, including Nelson, who argued the upgrades are essential to a nation pounded by deadly storms the past two years.
The Senate had proposed the measures in its budget recommendation for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service and the Hurricane Center. But the House's proposed budget wasn't as specific.
That changed when Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, and Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, teamed up in negotiations to convince House members to support the upgrades.
''We need to find ways to increase our research and monitoring capabilities, which will allow us to better predict hurricanes and provide greater protection for our citizens,'' Shelby said.
Cochran's home state was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Said Cochran spokesperson Jenny Manley: ``[Cochran and Shelby] let it be known that this was a high priority and they negotiated accordingly.''
Rep. Bill Young, a Floridian and senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said House members believed the changes were important.
''We're continuing to provide improved technology so that the Hurricane Center . . . can do an even better job as far as predicting the strength, track and speed of hurricanes,'' Young said.
The Weather Service budget includes:
An additional $500,000 for the Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade to increase the number of hurricane forecasters to 10, up from six. The last time the Hurricane Center gained additional forecasters was in 1988 -- 17 years ago.
More than $6 million to modernize the Weather Service's weather balloons, which gauge steering currents and other conditions in the atmosphere that affect approaching storms. For years, forecasters have struggled with the 1950s-era equipment, which can break for days and leave wide swaths of the atmosphere unmonitored.
More than $25 million for the operation and maintenance of buoys, including hurricane buoys. The devices, moored in the ocean, transmit data about wave height, wind speeds and ocean temperature and are the only tools that regularly collect information about surface conditions over water.
An estimated $1.5 million to fund a partnership between NOAA and the University of South Alabama aimed at improving the prediction of a hurricane's strength, rainfall and storm surge potential.
Many of the upgrades address gaps revealed in Blind Eye, a Herald investigation published in October that detailed how forecasters at the Hurricane Center and at Weather Service field offices have struggled for years with broken, outdated or unavailable weather-observing equipment.
The Hurricane Center has made many accurate predictions, but Director Max Mayfield, former directors, researchers and government experts say forecasts have been compromised by breakdowns among weather balloons, NOAA's hurricane hunter planes, dropwindsondes, buoys and other equipment.
In late October, the White House was the first to step in with an emergency spending proposal that included money for eight new hurricane buoys -- six in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, and two more in the Caribbean.
It also included $9 million for a third turboprop hurricane hunter plane, with three radars and breakthrough equipment to measure wind speeds. NOAA's two existing turboprop planes have been diverted during hurricane season for unrelated research missions, The Herald found. Forecasters and researchers have wanted a third plane for years.
UP TO CONGRESS
The White House's emergency funding proposal is now in the hands of Congress. It likely will be considered by the appropriations committees in December. Then it heads for a full vote by both chambers.
Mayfield said he could not comment on the proposals, but former Hurricane Center Director Jerry Jarrell said the improvements are long overdue.
''I guess [the Hurricane Center] finally got their attention,'' he said.
While praising the upgrades, however, Jarrell pointed to one key area that hasn't been addressed: hurricane research.
While some money is slated for the University of South Alabama, there is no significant increase for Miami's cash-strapped Hurricane Research Division, which supports the Hurricane Center during storms.
Another measure not included in either proposal: the Gulfstream jet. The jet flies in the environment around a storm to track steering currents, improving hurricane track predictions by as much as 25 percent. Forecasters say a second jet is needed for back-to-back missions.
Sen. Nelson is exploring the cost of a second jet, perhaps one that's no longer used by the Air Force. Rep. Young also said he wants to help. He was a senior member of the Appropriations Committee in the mid-1990s when Congress approved the first jet.
''The [jet] gives them the capability that the other hurricane hunter planes don't have,'' said Young, R-Indian Shores. ``I suspect you will see a lot of interest in providing that additional aircraft.''
All told, Congress gave the Weather Service $835 million for 2006, about seven percent more than this year. But the news isn't all good.
Much of the new money is earmarked for new programs and special projects, such as building a tsunami warning network. Other dollars must cover mandatory pay hikes.
The Weather Service, which weathered a $37 million budget cut this year, could potentially still face cutbacks in 2006.