Isabel stresses government tech

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Hurricane Isabel may have shut down the federal government last week, but also it spurred a whirlwind of technology as several organizations prepared for and tracked the storm.

From record-setting Web traffic at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Web site to the Web-based videoconferencing performed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the approaching threat of Isabel resulted in timely and efficient cross-agency cooperation throughout federal and state governments.

NOAA's National Hurricane Center in Florida began tracking Isabel days before it approached the United States. By collecting data from a variety of instruments, such as satellites and sophisticated sea-based sonar buoys, meteorologists created accurate numerical models of the storm.

Once Isabel came within 120 miles of the coastline, Doppler radar was added to the mix of instruments. The hurricane center then was able to anticipate the storm's path of destruction.

The Hurricane Liaison Team, located at the hurricane center, linked meteorologists with FEMA personnel who communicated directly with officials throughout the Eastern seaboard through Web-based videoconferencing.

FEMA officials used Web conferencing as a briefing tool and to help them make decisions, aiding in efforts to preposition supplies and coordinate activities with state officials.

The conferences were conducted with increased frequency as Isabel approached and eventually touched land. According to National Hurricane Center spokesperson Frank Lepore, the conferences began at a rate of once every six hours and increased to once every four hours when the hurricane watch was issued.

When that evolved into a hurricane warning, conferences were held hourly during the 24 hours prior to landfall.

"This saves us an incredible amount of time," Lepore said. "We provide the meteorology and [FEMA has] the ability to transmit that information. More importantly, they can bring the federal, state and local issues back to us."

Each state can access the conferences, which Lepore said was an additional time-saver.

NOAA makes important hurricane information available to the public on its Web site (www.noaa.gov). According to online editor Greg Hernandez, the site's traffic last week shattered all previous records.

Hernandez reported that the site was averaging 8 million hits per hour Sept. 17. From noon to 4 p.m. that day, the site recorded more than 35 million hits.

In comparison, a normal day would result in approximately 1.8 million hits. The previous traffic record was set in July, during Hurricane Claudette, when the site registered a one-day total of 3.7 million hits.

NOAA contracted more bandwidth to handle the increased activity by reaching a temporary agreement with Akamai Technologies Inc. to help it "weather the storm."

"This certainly put NOAA.gov in uncharted territory in term of hits," Hernandez said. "I've never seen anything like this."

With the increased bandwidth, NOAA reported no problems in handling the site traffic, a fact that was supported by Keynote Systems Inc., a Web performance management service.

"The NOAA.gov site has shown tremendous resiliency in maintaining high availability and response times in the one- to four-second range," said Keynote spokesman Dan Berkowitz.

NOAA's Web site was one of many that monitored Isabel. Motorists attempting to evacuate from the storm's path were able to find roadway updates at states' transportation department sites.

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