With the American Gulf Coast still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and bracing for the wrath of a second monster hurricane this weekend, experts told a Senate hearing that new storm forecasting tools could help save lives and property.
South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint opened the hearing by reading a statement issued by the New Orleans Weather Forecast Office 20 hours before Hurricane Katrina hit the city. It was marked Urgent.
"Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer," the statement read. "The vast majority of trees will be snapped or uprooted. Power outages will last for weeks as most power poles will be down and transformers destroyed. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards."
The next few days bore out the deadly accuracy of that forecast.
National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield told Louisiana Senator David Vitter that he called the governors of Gulf Coast states to warm them of impending danger. "Politicians can be a little isolated and I just wanted to make absolutely sure that they understood how serious this was," he said.
"People ask me when we really became concerned about the flooding in New Orleans, and the answer to that is decades ago," Mr. Mayfield added. "This didn't just happen with Katrina. Every previous director of the National Hurricane Center before me, they have all been united in saying that the greatest potential for the nightmare scenario and the loss of life is in that southeast Louisiana area."
Senators expressed frustration that emergency preparations for Katrina were delayed and that lives and property were unnecessarily lost. But assigning blame was not the purpose of the hearing.
Instead, senators questioned the experts about the science of hurricane prediction, and why monster storms like Katrina seem to be striking the U.S. with increased frequency.
National Hurricane Director Max Mayfield was asked whether global warming might be to blame. Mr. Mayfield reminded the senators that hurricanes run in cycles, with active and inactive periods. "Without invoking global warming, I think the natural variability alone is what this can be attributed to," he said. "I think that the important thing here is that even without invoking global warming we need to make sure that we get our country prepared for what we think will be another 10 or 20 years of active (increased) hurricane activity."
Weather forecasters use an arsenal of tools -- satellites, coastal radar, weather buoys and research aircraft -- to make their predictions. Marc Levitan directs the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University. He says forecasters must go beyond storm tracking to predict the human consequences of hurricanes.
They must ask questions like "What will be the number of buildings flooded? What will be the number of casualties? Number of rescues needed? We don't have that yet. And that is absolutely important." he told the Senators, adding that techniques for determining those figures are being developed at universities.
Mr. Levitan was on duty at the Louisiana Emergency Operation Center, briefing the public when Katrina was heading toward land. Looking back, he says, "I wish to God that I would have been able to brief that we needed 20,000 helicopter rescues, that we needed all these medical evacuations, but the state of the science is not there yet. And, we desperately need to move ahead. If we could have briefed that, then maybe that would have helped the response get rolling a little bit faster."
Mr. Levitan and other witnesses at the hearing said the scale used to rank the strength of hurricanes must be upgraded to better reflect the storms' destructive potential. The new scale would include such factors as wind, storm surge, rainfall, inland flooding and storm size, and would provide emergency planners with a better grasp of the damage a hurricane is likely to inflict.