Wednesday, April 04, 2007

National Hurricane Conference Is Underway

The annual National Hurricane Conference is underway in New Orleans, returning to the northern Gulf Coast for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005.

This year’s agenda is full of speakers and programs addressing Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, Louisiana and Mississippi, the ongoing recovering efforts in the region, and the threat another storm would pose to the area.

While most of the attention will be focused on the nation’s costliest hurricane, attendees will also take their first measure of the new director of the National Hurricane Center.

Bill Proenza, 62, took over one of meteorology’s most highly visible posts in January replacing Max Mayfield, who had held the job for the past six years.

Proenza, a career employee of the National Weather Service who most recently served as director of the agency’s Southern Region, is no stranger to hurricanes. He began his career more than 40 years ago flying through tropical storms and hurricanes with the Hurricane Hunters.

Proenza will review the relatively quiet 2006 hurricane season and look ahead to what many experts believe will be a more active 2007 hurricane season.

Proenza is also expected to talk about technology, specifically a weather satellite called QuikScat that could play a pivotal role in the upcoming hurricane season. In an interview with the Associated Press a few weeks ago, Proenza saaid hurricane forecasts could be up to 16% less accurate if the aging weather satellite, which is already beyond its expected life span, suddenly stops working.

Just hours before Katrina made landfall near New Orleans in August of 2005, the QuikScat satellite mapped the huge storm’s wind speeds, helping forecasters pinpoint Katrina’s impact in public information bulletins.

Launched in 1999 by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the QuikScat satellite was an experiment that was supposed to end in 2002. “It is currently in its seventh year of operation and was expected to last only five years,” said Proenza. “It is only a matter of time until it fails.”

Without the QuickScat satellite, Proenza said the two and three day forecasts of a storm’s future track would be affected. The two-day forecast could be off by ten percent, while the three-day forecast could be affected by 16 percent.

“That could mean that longer stretches of coastline would be placed under warnings,” said Proenza. “More people than necessary would have to evacuate.”

Solving the problem would take money and time. Proenza said that government, university and private-industry hurricane researchers need to get together to push for additional federal support for hurricane research.

“We have to argue, as a strong-cross section of the federal government, that this is indeed a high-priority program that needs support,” said Proenza. “It’s a big funding issue and it involves significant dollars that I alone do not have access to.”

The National Science Foundation agrees. In December, the Agency issued a report called: “Hurricane Warning: The Critical Need for a National Hurricane Research Initiative.” The report recommended a new research program with an annual budget of $300 million. President Bush’s proposed fiscal year 2008 budget calls for just $2 million to be spent on hurricane research.

Florida’s two senators, Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez, have proposed spending $4.3 billion dollars over a ten-year period for hurricane research. Their proposal is currently under consideration in the Senate.

People attending this year’s National Hurricane Conference will spend most of their time looking back at the power and devastation of Katrina and, if Proenza has his way, looking ahead toward a new era of hurricane research.

Posted at 2:26 PM