Katrina knocked out real-time weather

Real-time weather forecasts were one of Hurricane Katrina’s casualties, according to officials who feed data to the National Weather Service.

The Internet weather service WeatherBug, which shares observations with NWS through a public/private partnership, reported that 50 percent of its weather instrument stations were not functioning. NWS officials said most of the agency's weather radio transmitters are not emitting signals.

“We don’t know if it’s power, communications or an entire roof that’s gone” at the stations, said John Doherty, senior vice president of professional services at WeatherBug.

WeatherBug and NWS officials have repair teams in the Gulf Coast region this week.

Sensors installed atop WeatherBug’s stations monitor 27 types of weather conditions, including humidity, wind direction and wind speed. Out of more than 300 stations in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, only 50 percent are still sending data to NWS and WeatherBug.

“We want to go in and fill in the gaps," Doherty said. "The whole purpose is to be prepared for another storm or a chemical explosion. This is more preventive than anything else." Six employees are assigned to the project, he said.

If a toxic cloud were to develop from an explosion, first responders would need to know the wind conditions surrounding the site so they could relocate people, Doherty said.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association weather radios, which typically announce NWS warnings and forecasts in emergency situations, are not working because of storm damage to the radio transmitters’ communications system.

“I don’t think there are a lot of relief workers getting most of this data in the New Orleans area,” said Martin Garcia, an electronics program manager for NWS’ southern region.

All but one of the NOAA weather radio transmitters are not responding.

“Most of our automated stations are operational," Garcia said. "It's the communications to the radios, which are Southern Bell and MCI landlines, that are not working,” Garcia said.

NWS workers in New Orleans anticipate they will be able to bypass landlines with UHF links and start transmitting from New Orleans as early as tomorrow. The NWS employees are waiting for military escorts to let them into downtown New Orleans.

John Duxbury, chief of the observations and facilities branch for NWS’ southern region, said the group's equipment is fully operational. "We just can’t communicate with it," he said.

In Boothville, La., and at New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport, however, NWS' automated weather stations are underwater, Garcia said. Most of the other automated stations, including ones in Baton Rouge, La.; Gulfport, Miss.; and at the New Orleans Airport, are working with intermittent phone communications.

Meteorologists, under contract with the Federal Aviation Administration, are assisting NWS with handheld weather instruments.

Duxbury said local weather information is available through the Internet, television and Hamm radios, where available.

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