Lawmakers praise National Weather Service's pre-Katrina efforts

Most lawmakers are hailing the National Weather Service for accurately predicting Hurricane Katrina, separating NWS’ work from the government’s ill response after the disaster.

But at a congressional hearing on hurricane forecasting Oct. 7, NWS officials admitted there are gaps in the agency’s basic understanding of hurricanes.

“Our track forecasts have shown continued improvement,” said NWS director David Johnson. However, we have not seen a comparable improvement in our intensity forecasts.”

The two underlying unknowns include analysis of a hurricane's current condition and a prediction of the hurricane's future condition, he added.

To address each shortcoming, NWS’ parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is developing two systems. The Global Earth Observation System of Systems, a 10-year international endeavor involving NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and NOAA, will enhance hurricane analyses. For more precise hurricane predictions, NOAA is building the Hurricane Weather and Research Forecasting system, which will integrate wave models with dynamic storm surge models.

House Science Committee members were eager to know how much it would cost to continue this work.

“NOAA’s performance was probably the best one we had in the federal government, but I’m very concerned about our ability to continue to do a good job and to do a better job in forecasting,” Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.). “The difference between the House and Senate [recommended fiscal 2006] budget for NOAA is $1 billion.”

But NWS officials did not come equipped with specific requests for resources or legislation.

“There’s always an opportunity to do better and to improve,” Johnson testified.

In the past few weeks, a few government officials have scorned NWS for not alerting the government about the magnitude of Katrina. Former Federal Emergency Management Agency leader Michael Brown and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) criticized NWS for not giving sufficient warning about Hurricane Katrina's direction and intensity.

Before the hurricane season, Santorum introduced legislation that would bar the NWS from competing with the commercial weather industry. Backers of the bill contend that NWS spends too much money mimicking the private sector and sometimes withholds critical information, such as real-time snowfall accumulation reports and hurricane reconnaissance reports.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), the committee’s chairman, dismissed any notion of wrongdoing within NWS during his opening statements.

“If nothing else, the horrifying events of recent weeks have underscored the value” of NWS, Boehlert said.

Ranking member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) refuted Brown, who had said on CNN that “this storm is much bigger than anyone expected.”

Gordon said to NWS officials, “Is it possible that the Weather Service simply wasn’t being articulate about the nature of the threat posed by Katrina? I don’t think that to be true, but we will have a chance today to confirm it.”

Lawmakers asked the NWS officials what could have been done to get the attention of emergency response leaders.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), chairman of the committee’s Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee, wanted to know if there is a roll call to make sure everyone from FEMA receives the severe weather warning.

NWS officials said FEMA officials do not take individual attendance during conference calls. They only take account of the offices participating in the call, asking, for example, if FEMA’s Region 7 division is on the line.

The hearing veered into the realm of science fiction when lawmakers mentioned weather modification as a solution. The federal government once funded scientists to seed clouds near the eye of the storm with silver iodide as a method of weakening the hurricane. The research, known as Project Stormfury, lasted from 1962 to 1983.

Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) asked, “20 years from now, might we be able to use space-based assets” to mitigate hurricane destruction?

NWS National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield believes such approaches are unlikely.

“I’m a very pragmatic type of guy, and I’m not going to hold my breath,” he said.

Rohrabacher said, “To alter the force of that hurricane, we’re all going to have to learn how to pray.”

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