WASHINGTON – As Texans enjoy the calm before the heart of the 2009 hurricane season,both houses of Congress have boosted efforts to avoid a repeat of the calamities that have become commonplace on the Gulf Coast in recent years.
A Senate committee July 28 discussed how better forecasting,improved building codes and greater public awareness could mitigate hurricane damage. The previous day,a House of Representatives subcommittee addressed the need to create a clear chain of government command and broaden the definition of a catastrophe to enable an efficient and effective response to major hurricanes.
House and Senate members have proposed a bill that would allocate $313 million toward establishing a National Hurricane Research Initiative designed to improve the nation's ability to predict,prepare and respond to the impact of hurricanes on the population,infrastructure and environment. Sens. Mel Martinez,R-Fla.,and Bill Nelson,D-Fla.,are co-sponsoring the Senate bill,and Rep. Alcee Hastings,D-Fla.,is sponsoring the House bill.
Witnesses at the Senate Committee on Commerce,Science and Technology noted recent gains in the ability to track and forecast hurricanes. Accuracy has increased by about 50 percent since 1990,leading to increased lead time and smaller warning areas,said Richard W. Spinrad,assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Gordon L. Wells,University of Texas Center for Space Research program manager, discussed how a National Science Foundation-funded supercomputer correctly predicted the magnitude of Hurricane Ike's storm surge at Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula last year,enabling Texas to target its search-and-clear operations.
“Everything you predicted occurred exactly when and where you predicted it to happen,” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison,R-Texas,told Wells.
Wells said the supercomputer can also assess how effective various measures would be in reducing hurricane damage. Those measures might include wetlands restoration and land use restrictions or building seawalls and storm gates. The supercomputer has run simulations of Hurricane Ike with and without a proposed dike shielding a 60-mile section of the Upper Texas Gulf Coast,along with simulations for an even more powerful hurricane.
NOAA has developed a 10-year plan to improve the accuracy and reliability of hurricane forecasts and warnings,Spinrad said. The agency will seek to reduce errors by 50 percent in predicting storm location and wind speed,increase the forecast accuracy for rapid changes in hurricane intensity when nearing landfall,and extend the lead time of its hurricane forecast from about four days to seven.
Wells emphasized the need for people to understand their personal risk. He said greater emphasis must be placed on communicating the results of forecast modeling and simulation to the public.
“People can't visualize that they're going to come back and see sticks in the ground and not a broken air conditioner,” Hutchison said.
Wells said he hopes to develop dramatic models that will offer photorealistic,three-dimensional portrayals of hurricane damage at the neighborhood level.
The House subcommittee on economic development,public buildings and emergency management discussed adding a more explicit definition of a catastrophe that would allow for more funding and support to affected areas.
Committee members also questioned recently appointed Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate about the duplication of responsibilities and confusion over the chain of command within and outside of FEMA.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton,D-D.C.,complained that the Department of Homeland Security has duplicated FEMA's responsibilities,creating confusion about whom local and state actors should go to for disaster assistance. She was particularly upset about the office having a “principal federal official” who might have some authority in a major disaster.
“We're not going to tolerate it any longer,” she said. “And if we find that an officer's funded,we will ask the appropriations committee to defund it.”
Fugate assured the committee that the operations office won't be in charge after a major disaster. He said FEMA now has a clearer top-down organizational structure so that information is efficiently communicated within the organization.