Florida hurricane experts plead for more funding

Aug 21, 2008

Miami Herald--August 21, 2008


Top hurricane scientists from Florida are leading a charge to lobby Congress to sharply increase funding for research into predicting, modeling and preventing damage from nature’s deadliest storms.

Sitting in the cross-hairs of hurricane alley — and fresh from experiencing Tropical Storm Fay — Florida stands to gain the most from a spike in money for research through the National Hurricane Research Initiative Act, otherwise known as House Resolution 2407. If approved in its current form, the bill would dedicate almost $500 million annually for hurricane research over the next decade.

There are no guarantees the bill will pass this year.

But scientists say they want at least as much federal funding as is dedicated for earthquake research at universities, which receive about $100 million a year.

”We need to bring hurricane research up to today’s standards,” said University of Miami researcher Shuyi Chen. “We are still predicting hurricane intensity and working with modeling technology developed in the 1970s.”

Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman, director of the school’s International Hurricane Research Center, agrees.

”Katrina should have been a wake-up call. But some people feel it was a one-time event that can never happen again,” Leatherman said. “I’d say hurricane researchers at universities get less than 25 percent of what universities get for earthquake research. It’s uncoordinated, it’s insufficient, and unless Congress does something about it, it’s going to stay that way.”

Leatherman and other scientists understand that high national deficits and tight budgets may align against them, but they stress the amount of money that can be saved from increased research.

Leatherman’s center recently received a highly coveted $10 million grant from the state, which he says has recognized the hurricane threat and has recently dedicated more money to study storms. His center, best known for the ”Wall of Wind” machine used to test how products fare in hurricane winds, wants to help develop products such as powerful adhesives that can be used to retrofit the roofs of older homes.

In 2004, Florida sustained $42 billion in damage from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, and the following year Hurricane Wilma alone walloped South Florida and left $16 billion in damage.

Leatherman said insurance companies are willing to work with homeowners to lower rates significantly if they would retrofit their homes with hurricane-resistant upgrades.

In June, Leatherman, as well as scientists from the University of Florida, the University of Miami and federal agencies, testified before Congress to urge them to pass the bill, which would help corral much of the research that already exists from different government and academic entities.

And UM’s Chen leads a research group that has developed a next-generation, high-resolution hurricane modeling system to understand the intensity of storms and improve hurricane prediction. She told Congress that the key to success was developing a hurricane forecasting system that includes “detailed forecasts of extreme winds, rain, storm surge and severe weather such as tornadoes and inland flooding.”

The proposed bill would set aside $285 million a year for overall hurricane research, $130 million a year to create new hurricane modeling and $20 million a year to create a national infrastructure database that would catalog the country’s infrastructure that is vulnerable to hurricanes.

At the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County, storm specialists agree a commitment of time and money is needed to improve hurricane intensity forecasts.

”Our main problem is limited skill in forecasting intensity,” said Christopher Landsea, the center’s science and operations officer. “We can identify and predict general trends — the storm is getting stronger or it’s getting weaker — but in terms of rapid changes in intensity, we have to do a better job.”

Current funding levels would allow for ”modest improvements” in the next decade, Landsea said.

‘The hope is that more funding comes through, and it gets into forecasters’ hands so we can harness all the information we have into newer, more sophisticated models,” Landsea said.

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched a Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project aimed at improving the accuracy and reliability of storm forecasts.

Chen says faster, more powerful computers are needed to be able to track intensity shifts within half-mile areas so forecasters could identify very specific areas where the winds and rain are the strongest. She made her feelings clear to Congress.

”It is of no doubt that improving the hurricane forecast and response to save lives and reduce economic loss should be a national priority,” Chen told Congress in June. “There is no reason for further delay or full-scale support for such development, which is long overdue.”