Researchers face cash crunch despite more money

The White House and Congress have dished up proposals funneling millions of dollars into forecasting tools to better track and predict hurricanes, including weather balloons, buoys and even a new hurricane hunter plane.

But little has been said about the science behind forecasting.

Now, at a time when hurricanes continue to attack the nation's coastlines, Miami's Hurricane Research Division faces a projected $800,000 deficit for 2006.

''We're going to be in the hole this year,'' said research meteorologist Mike Black, with the Division for two decades. ``We're hoping that this shortfall will not result in additional loss of staff. We'll be decimated.''


The Research Division has pioneered breakthroughs to advance hurricane forecasting. Since 1995, the division has lost 11 scientists and has replaced just four, leaving 31 people and a base budget that hasn't topped $3.5 million in more than two decades.

Congress this week granted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration more money for 2006 than the agency had requested for oceanic and atmospheric research. But NOAA is not expected to significantly increase the Research Division's base budget.

NOAA officials say a recently released emergency spending proposal from the White House includes $300,000 for the Division to pay for extra supplies and staffing costs incurred during the recent hurricanes. But researchers say that won't cover the shortfall.

In the past, the Research Division has cobbled together grant money, and this past year received about $700,000 in one-time funding from Congress. Researchers have also borrowed $100,000 from NOAA's oceanographers. In 2006, however, the oceanographers face a tight budget, some of the grants have dried up, and Congress has so far proposed no additional money for the Research Division.


The division supports the National Hurricane Center. In the air, researchers serve as chief scientists aboard NOAA's hurricane hunter planes. On the ground, they determine where the planes will fly within a hurricane.

Over the years, researchers have helped introduce new forecasting tools, including an acclaimed stepped-frequency microwave radiometer that for the first time measures surface wind speeds from hurricane hunter planes.

When Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida learned of the shortfall from The Herald earlier this week, he pledged to step in. He has flown on hurricane reconnaissance missions with the division's researchers.

''They are critical to the operation,'' he said.

Rep. Bill Young of Florida, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, also was concerned, saying he'll help push for ``whatever it is that the scientists say they need.''