Summary of Hearings on Wind Hazards (6-12-06)
The Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations held a hearing on June 7, 2006 regarding the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season. The subcommittee chair, Richard Shelby (R-AL), began the hearing by commending the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for its forecasting of Hurricane Katrina and for its post-hurricane support. Ranking member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) also praised NOAA's work and encouraged the witnesses to describe in their testimonies the agency's specific funding needs.
Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA administrator, reported that NOAA's hurricane forecasting capabilities have been significantly improved since the recent distribution of fiscal year 2006 emergency supplemental funding. The funding has been put toward improving hurricane intensity and storm surge modeling, and procuring an additional hurricane hunter aircraft. Lautenbacher added that the agency is requesting a $109 million increase for hurricane related programs for fiscal year 2007.
The 2006 supplemental funding has accelerated the development of NOAA's new hurricane model, which integrates the agency's latest atmospheric model with real-time ocean data. Dr. Louis Uccellini, Director of the National Weather Service's National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), explained that the computer program - which is presently undergoing testing - should be fully operational by the 2007 hurricane season. The model will improve forecasts of hurricane landfall by 20 percent and hurricane intensity by 30 percent. Improvements to the storm surge prediction model - known as SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes) - will likely not be implemented until 2008.
Although the recent supplemental funding has allowed the National Hurricane Center (NHC) to increase its number of forecasters, Uccellini remarked that he was worried that additional money would be needed to ensure pay raises for the new personnel. Other than the payroll issues, both Uccellini and Lautenbacher appeared satisfied with the federal government's level of support toward NOAA.
In light of NOAA's predictions for an above-average 2006 hurricane season, both witnesses emphasized the importance of hurricane preparedness plans for all coastal communities. While on this topic, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) took the opportunity to question Lautenbacher about other coastal disaster preparedness programs. Due to the findings of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued this week, Murray was skeptical of NOAA's ability to effectively direct nation-wide tsunami-related activities. Lautenbacher assured Murray that his agency is critically reviewing the GAO report, and pointed out that development of the new tsunami detection system is well underway. Fifteen of 39 planned sensor buoys that detect tsunami activity have already been deployed in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
The Disaster Prevention and Prediction Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on May 24, 2006 on the "2006 Hurricane Forecast and At-Risk Cities." Subcommittee chairman Jim DeMint (R-SC) opened the hearing by stating that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting an above-average 2006 Atlantic hurricane season. The 2006 Atlantic hurricane season will likely produce up to 16 named storms, with the prospect of 4 to 6 of them developing into major hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher. DeMint commended NOAA for its progress in hurricane track forecasting, but complained that the agency "has shown little progress in hurricane intensity forecasting."
In his testimony, Max Mayfield, director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center, reported that "NOAA is focused on improving hurricane track, intensity, storm surge and rainfall predictions. Improvements have been made in predicting hurricane track forecasts, [but] predicting hurricane intensity remains one of our most difficult forecast challenges," Mayfield said. NOAA does hope to improve intensity predictions in the near future through advances in computer-based numerical weather prediction models and a new hurricane modeling system, known as the Hurricane Weather Research and Forecasting model. Citing the need to enhance hurricane forecasting accuracy, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) called for the creation of a larger computer modeling group at the National Hurricane Center.
While all coastal communities are at risk for hurricanes, Mayfield emphasized that some are especially vulnerable because of their large populations and the length of time it would take to evacuate residents out of harm's way. Houston/Galveston, Tampa Bay, southwest Florida, the Florida Keys, southeast Florida, New York City/Long Island, and New England are some of the most at-risk areas. Mayfield stressed the importance of making the public aware of hurricane preparedness measures. "The research community is telling us we are in an active period for major hurricanes that could last another 10 to 20 years or more," Mayfield warned. "Every individual, every family, every business and every community on or near the coast [should] have a hurricane preparedness plan and have it in place before the hurricane season gets here."
The remaining two witness testimonies also focused on hurricane preparedness. Major General Stanhope Spears, Adjutant General of the South Carolina Military Department, addressed issues related to the National Guard. He explained that states that have been previously impacted by hurricanes have a responsibility to help neighboring states during times of need. "The challenge is to ensure unity of effort among federal, state and local agencies," said Stanhope. "This can be accomplished using National Guard communications equipment that allows disparate radio systems to intercommunicate."
Brigadier General Benjamin J. Spraggins, Director of the Harrison County (Mississippi) Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, agreed that maintaining effective communication is extremely important during a hurricane emergency. He pointed out that preparation of evacuation procedures, adequate shelter, transportation, fuel supplies and sanitary facilities are also vital to effective emergency management.
Mayfield concluded that hurricane preparedness in all coastal communities is extremely important because, "the truth is that right now no one knows exactly what areas of the coast, or which states or locations within those states will be impacted by hurricanes in 2006. The crucial message for every person is the same: prepare, prepare, prepare. One hurricane hitting where you live is enough to make it a bad season."
On March 1, 2006, the Disaster Prevention and Prediction Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing to discuss the impacts of winter storms and the steps that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is taking to improve storm prediction. Subcommittee Chairman Jim DeMint (R-SC) opened the hearing by discussing the many severe winter storms that affect the U.S., including blizzards in the Midwest, ice storms in the South, and coastal storms in Alaska. "While winter storms are often not as sensational as hurricanes and tornados, these storms still have a devastating impact on businesses and communities," DeMint said. "The nation needs accurate and timely storm prediction."
In her prepared testimony, Denise Michels, Mayor of the City of Nome in Alaska, detailed the winter storms that have hit western Alaska during the past 100 years and the millions of dollars in damages the storms have caused. "It is very evident that we are seeing these storms more often," she added. She noted that coastal Alaskan communities are attempting to create hazardous mitigation plans, but that more federal funds are necessary to complete the plans. She also recommended adding more buoys and observation points in the Bering Sea region to improve the accuracy of storm prediction.
Dr. Louis Uccellini, Director of the NOAA National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) discussed recent advances in NOAA's forecasting capabilities. "Our 72-hour forecasts are as accurate today as our 36-hour forecasts were 20 years ago," he said, attributing improvements to increased quantities of observational data and improved model capabilities. He noted that NOAA's predictions of the recent storm in the Northeast allowed the public to "take mitigation steps before the storms arrival."
Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), Chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, began the question and answer period with harsh criticism of NOAA's prediction efforts in Alaska. "[NOAA is] basing weather observation on population," Stevens said, citing statistics that of the 122 NOAA weather offices, only 3 are located in Alaska, which covers an area 1/5 the size of the continental U.S. He added that there are no forecasting offices on Alaska's entire west coast, an area that is consistently ravaged by intense winter storms. Uccellini responded that NOAA "recognizes deficiencies" in the observational network, but that the agency is operating under budget constraints.
Stevens also questioned NOAA's decision to operate only one stream gauge in Alaska. While high-population areas of the U.S. often have several gauges for one river, Alaska's one gauge monitors multiple rivers. Stevens contended that the lack of observational networks in Alaska limits NOAA's ability to provide the state's residents with adequate advance warning. Uccellini countered that NOAA works closely with other agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), to improve river monitoring in Alaska. He added that Alaska also benefits from remote sensing data collected by satellites in low Earth orbit, which provide greater coverage of Alaska than of the rest of the nation.
Subcommittee Ranking Member Ben Nelson (D-NE) raised concerns about delays to the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and whether these delays would impair NOAA's ability to track weather systems. Uccellini answered that polar satellites are a "key parameter" in providing accurate data to NOAA's weather model. "If we were to lose the polar orbital system, we would have significant impacts on our ability to forecast," he said. He noted that NOAA has developed contingency plans for a potential NPOESS delay, including using European and research satellites to fill the gap in observational data.
DeMint cited a recent rating of the top 500 companies worldwide that ranked the U.S. Weather Service 90th and ranked China's counterpart 36th. He asked Uccellini why the U.S. is "falling behind the rest of the world." Uccellini stated that NOAA's biggest challenge is maintaining its powerful computing resources. Despite the fact that NOAA upgrades its computing systems every 18 months, the agency is "falling behind" in terms of computational power. Noting increased computational needs for NOAA's global models, Uccellini said, "We have to be on the competitive edge in the computer world."
For the full text of statements made at the hearing, click here.
On June 29, 2005, the Disaster Prevention and Prediction subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee held a hearing on "Severe Storms And Reducing Their Impact On Communities." On the first panel of witnesses, government agency representatives offered testimony about how well they are able to forecast and warn communities about severe storms. The second panel provided information about how local communities, the media and industry can then use the agency data in the most effective ways to mitigate disasters.
Jim DeMint (R-SC), co-chair of the subcommittee, opened the hearing with comments about lessons learned from Hurricane Hugo, which struck the South Carolina coastline in 1989. He noted that, although the National Weather Service (NWS) has dramatically improved its predictions since Hugo, homes and businesses need to better incorporate prevention measures. He further indicated that we need a better idea of how severe weather will impact our beaches and rivers, commenting that today's hearing would help law makers draft legislation to reduce the risks from natural hazards.
Senator David Vitter (D-LA) was then given time to discuss the difficulties facing the Louisiana coastline and its most populated regions in and around New Orleans from hurricanes and flooding. Vitter was worried about the reactive nature of hazards funding, in which the U.S. spends billions of dollars to clean up after a disaster rather than spending millions of dollars beforehand to mitigate. He summarized the National Weather Service's model of a hurricane striking New Orleans. The model indicates that water levels in New Orleans will vary from 14 to more than 23 feet for category 3 or greater hurricanes and that 100,000 people could lose their lives because of the storm surge and flooding.
Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE), the other co-chair, arrived as Vitter was completing his statement and was then given time to present some opening remarks. Nelson focused on tornadoes because Nebraska is in the northern end of "tornado alley," where a large number of tornadoes are spawned in severe weather. He mentioned the 30th anniversary of the 1975 tornado in Omaha that killed 3 people and became the costliest tornado on record at $1.1 billion (in 1975 dollars). He concluded that protecting lives is our number one priority, and technology is needed to do this.
Dr. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) presented the first testimony of the first panel. He noted that hurricane activity is increasing in the Atlantic Ocean, and there were an unprecedented 6 hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. in 2004. Hurricane activity shows a multi-decadal rise and fall in activity and since the mid-1990s we have entered a period of increasing activity that may last for 10 to 20 years. Luckily, forecasts of hurricane tracks have improved due to better computer modeling and satellite observations, while reconnaissance aircraft remain very useful. Unfortunately, forecasts of hurricane intensity have made only "modest" improvements, and the NHC continues to work on improving tracking and intensity forecasts. Some tools that will help them include the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), the Joint Hurricane Test bed (JHT), and the Hurricane Weather and Forecasting (HWRF) system, which is a collaborative effort among research communities to combine data from the atmosphere, ocean and land into an integrated model.
Mayfield also commented about the NHC's outreach and education efforts because enhanced hurricane tracking information is useless if the public doesn't know what to do or doesn't heed the warnings. Indeed 20 to 25% of people did not evacuate during hurricanes in 2004 even though they should have and of those that did evacuate, some would have been safer if they had not moved. In addition, a survey in May 2005 showed that 47% of people in coastal states do not have a hurricane plan.
Dr. McCarthy, Director of the National Weather Service Office of Climate, Water and Weather Services, focused on forecasting tornadoes. On average, 1300 tornadoes result in 58 deaths, 1500 injuries and $1.1 billion in damage per year in the United States. More tornadoes strike the central plains between the Rockies and the Appalachians than any other place in the world. After giving a brief history of tornado forecasting, McCarthy concluded that the use of NEXRAD Doppler weather radar and specially trained meteorologists in local NWS offices has nearly tripled the lead time for warnings to 13 minutes, raised the probability of detection to 75% and reduced fatalities by 45% over the past 30 years. In the future they hope to reduce the warning areas to smaller "polygons" rather than using state-defined counties and increase the lead time to 30 to 45 minutes.
Dr. Abby Sallenger, a research oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, discussed the use of airborne lidar surveys of coastal topography before and after hurricanes to determine the vulnerability of coastal areas to future destruction. Most of the eastern and gulf coastal regions are protected by barrier islands, and the erosion of these beaches makes other areas susceptible to inundation from storm surge. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 caused the shoreline to retreat 40 feet in Alabama and Florida, while vertical scour of about 9 feet of land in Orange Beach, Alabama caused the collapse of several 5-story condominiums (the largest structures to be damaged in the hurricane). The USGS now provides vulnerability to coastal change maps of threatened regions along the gulf and eastern shores, so that emergency planners can develop appropriate evacuation plans once a hurricane forecast is made and builders can consider the vulnerability probability in their construction plans.
Following the first panel of testimony, DeMint asked the government researchers what NOAA was doing to encourage people to take responsible actions during a hurricane warning, and whether NOAA posted evacuation routes on its website. Mayfield mentioned the lack of preparedness of many coastal dwellers, but noted that 82% of Floridians now have a hurricane plan after the 2004 season. Mayfield also stated that NOAA does not provide evacuation routes and such routes must come from the local community. Nelson prodded McCarthy about whether NOAA has enough funds to carry out their severe weather warning responsibilities given that the House fiscal year 2006 appropriation bill would cut NOAA funding by 7.6%. McCarthy was diplomatic and stated "we do the best we can with the budget we are given". Vitter asked about the inability to evacuate New Orleans and whether vertical evacuation would be possible for those who could not get out of the city in time. Mayfield responded that although he was not an expert, he thought that vertical evacuation was not considered viable because subsequent power outages would leave the people stranded without electricity. Vitter then followed-up with an unrelated question about why a NOAA employee had resigned from a climate change committee because the committee wanted to attribute increased hurricane activity with climate change. Mayfield responded that the multi-decadal cyclicity was much stronger than any climate change effect on hurricane activity.
The second panel discussed what communities on the ground should do to prevent disaster from a hurricane or a tornado. Mr Walsh, a broadcast meteorologist, discussed the importance of the media covering the hurricane before and after it makes landfall, so the community knows when to evacuate and what to do after they evacuate. Dr. Marc Levitan, the director of the Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center, discussed efforts to develop a storm shelter standard for hurricanes and tornadoes. The International Code Council (ICC) and the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) are developing standards in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). With the average annual damage from windstorms rising above $6 billion, Levitan called the $5 to $6 million federal investment for research into mitigation inadequate. He asked for this subcommittee to encourage the Appropriations committee to fund the Windstorm Hazards Reduction Program at $22.5 million.
Tim Reinhold, a civil engineer and vice president of engineering for the Institute for Business & Home Safety, discussed improvements in the insurance industry in Florida and Texas and the need for standardized building codes across the country. Despite one in five Floridians filing an insurance claim for hurricane damage in 2004 (with total claims exceeding $20 billion), only one insurance company filed for bankruptcy, a vast improvement compared to the industry collapse in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew. Florida requires stricter building codes for new construction and offers insurance policies with incentives and discounts for mitigation enhancements. Reinhold also encouraged more and better instrumentation on land to measure wind speed so that damage can be directly correlated with the actual wind speed rather than some maximum sustained hurricane winds measured when the hurricane is still over water. Reinhold believes that homeowners are complacent, don't think a hurricane will hit them and, in places where a home has survived a hurricane strike, homeowners get a false sense of security thinking their house has survived much higher winds than what may have passed through their property.
Finally Mr. Ahlberg, director for Emergency Management for Lincoln/Lancaster Counties, Nebraska, discussed best practices for tornado mitigation. He suggested that tornado warnings be divided into 3 categories, watch, alert and warnings and that the National Weather Service reduce the size of areas that individual forecasters are responsible for. There is only one forecaster for a large area that includes 30 counties in Nebraska and 8 counties in Iowa. Mr Ahlberg believes the NWS should have more funding to provide better coverage over smaller areas to prevent disasters.
A web cast of the hearing and the written testimony of each panelist
is available at
Sources: Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Linda Rowan, Director of Government Affairs, Jenny Fisher, 2006 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern and Jessica Rowland, 2006 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on June 12, 2006.