Wednesday, February 13, 2008

U.S. aims to give wake-up alerts on storms

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - In the not-too-distant future, the U.S. government would like to be able to wake up residents in the middle of the night when a hurricane or tornado threatens, perhaps by sounding the alarm on a cellphone.

The birth of a twister or the sudden, overnight intensification of a hurricane while people are sleeping, are the nightmare scenarios facing storm forecasters as they lay plans to strengthen America's natural disaster defenses.

"I'm worried about waking you up," Mary Glackin, a Bush administration official responsible for the day-to-day operations of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said on Tuesday. "I call that completing the forecast."

The U.S. government is ready to spend more money on tracking satellites, sea buoys and research on hurricanes, Glackin said as she briefed south Florida officials on the administration's proposed fiscal year 2009 budget.

The disastrous 2004 and 2005 Atlantic hurricane seasons sent shock waves through global energy, insurance and commodities markets. Four powerful hurricanes struck Florida in 2004, causing a combined $35 billion in damage.

In 2005 a record-breaking 28 tropical cyclones formed, including some of the most intense hurricanes on record. Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage when it swamped the U.S. Gulf coast, bursting the levees protecting New Orleans and flooding the famous jazz city.

One of the biggest threats from hurricanes is the explosive intensification of a cyclone close to shore after residents have gone to bed, shortening the time available to safely evacuate millions of people from the crowded Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts.


Bill Read, the new director of the National Hurricane Center, said he would like to see a wake-up system, perhaps Internet-based and delivered by cellphone, within a decade.

"Look what can be delivered by cellphone now," Read said. "We ought to be there in 10 years."

In order to improve hurricane intensity forecasts, NOAA plans to deploy three new hurricane-monitoring buoys at sea this year, bringing to 15 the number in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Atlantic. They can measure wind speeds, wave heights, sea temperatures and other critical data.

Read said he hopes for a 3 percent yearly increase in the accuracy of intensity forecasts, the same as forecasters have been able to achieve in predicting hurricane tracks. The aim is to buy residents a little extra time to react to a storm.

"We're not going to solve the intensity problem if we don't do the research," he said.

The agency's budget for hurricane-hunter airplane flights into hurricanes is increasing, and it plans to equip a Gulfstream-IV jet with a new Doppler radar system, giving forecasters better data on a storm's wind field, Glackin said.

Researchers eventually hope to deploy unmanned aircraft like those used by the U.S. military in Iraq for hurricane research missions that are "dirty, dull or dangerous," she said. Such a drone was sent into Hurricane Noel last year.

The fiscal year 2009 budget, proposed by President George W. Bush and subject still to Congressional approval, would boost funding from $3 million to $6.3 million for the drones. Glackin said full deployment is "several years down the road."

The 2009 spending plan includes a huge $242 million increase for the GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) program, which is scheduled to put a new string of satellites into orbit starting in 2014.