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Big money for hurricane research?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 1:08 PM GMT on October 27, 2006

The National Hurricane Research Initiative (NHRI)
There's big money proposed to fund new hurricane research. The National Science Board, in a report issued September 29, 2006, calls for an increase of $300 million per year in hurricane research funding. That's a whopping increase in funding, when one considers that the average annual spending on hurricane research has been only $20 million the past six years. So, what is the National Science Board, and this a reasonable proposal?

National Science Board
The 24 members of the National Science Board are appointed by the President of the United States, and make budget recommendations for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF has an annual budget of about $5.6 billion (fiscal year 2006), and funds approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America's colleges and universities. So, this is a very serious proposal by a group which has real power to influence the Federal budget.

Major recommendations of the report
The primary recommendation of the report is the formation of a National Hurricane Research Initiative (NHRI), which will "provide urgently needed hurricane science and engineering research and education". As justification for this effort, the report notes that that hurricane damage is increasing, with annual total losses (in constant 2006 dollars) averaging $1.3 billion from 1949-1989, $10.1 billion from 1990-1995, and $35.8 billion per year during the last 5 years. $168 billion in losses occurred in 2004 and 2005 alone. Over 50% of the population lives within 50 miles of the coast, and the value of infrastructure in the Gulf and Atlantic coast areas is over $3 trillion, with trillions more in investment likely in the next few decades as the U.S. population continues to expand. This incredible investment will be increasingly affected by hurricanes, and scientists "know relatively little about the most important aspects of hurricanes including their internal dynamics and interactions with the larger-scale atmosphere and ocean; methods for quantifying and conveying uncertainty and mitigating hurricane impacts; associated short and long term consequences on the natural and built environment; and the manner in which society responds before, during, and after landfall." The study notes that "billions of tax dollars have been provided for rescue, recovery, and rebuilding after hurricanes strike", but more money needs to be spent minimizing losses from hurricanes before they strike. In fact, had the NHRI been funded two years ago, much of the devastation wrought by Katrina could have been avoided. The program funds engineering studies to evaluate the structural integrity of the entire coastal infrastucture including levees, seawalls, drainage systems, bridges, water/sewage, power, and communications. The flaws in the New Orleans levees that led to over 80% of the city's flooding could have been found and fixed before Katrina hit had such a program been funded earlier.

The report has many excellent suggestions on how to make a coordinated research effort that will pay big dividends over the coming years by reducing our vulnerability to hurricanes. For example, the report seeks funding for research on improving evacuation planning, so that we can avoid a repeat of the debacle that occurred during the evacuation of Houston for Hurricane Rita. Over 100 people died in the evacuation effort. Research on improved disaster communications technologies is proposed, so that we avoid the situation that arose in Katrina where FEMA had no idea what was going on at the Convention Center.

My only gripe about the report is the inclusion of funding for research on human modification of hurricanes to reduce their intensity or alter their movement. I don't believe we should be messing with these great storms until we understand better how they work. In addition, given the sheer size and incredible energy that storms have, modification efforts will likely be an ineffectual waste of time and money. Finally, I don't think the legal system in this country will allow hurricane modification to occur without a lot of lawsuits being filed. I don't know too many hurricane scientists who are in favor of hurricane modification research, and suspect it is being funded for political reasons.

Is $300 million a reasonable request?
To do a thorough job of reducing our vulnerability to hurricanes, $300 million per year is a reasonable amount to spend. However, the U.S. faces a number of threats that also require large outlays of dollars, such as bioterrorism and earthquakes. The framers of the report realize that getting a $300 million per year project funded in a time of "increasingly small non-defense discretionary budgets" is difficult. To put this number in perspective, the annual amount spent in the U.S. on meteorology operations and supporting research is $3 billion. About $1 billion/year of this goes to run the National Weather Service, with weather satellites consuming another big chunk of the costs. But consider the amount being spent on defending the country against bioterrorism. The federal budget for bioterrorism emergency preparedness has ranged between $3 and $6 billion per year since 2002. The request for FY 2007 is $4.3 billion. That's over 200 times what we spend on hurricane research, and over ten times the $300 million being proposed. While others will disagree, I believe that the threat of catastrophe from hurricane strikes on the U.S. is much higher than that from bioterrorism. If we need to find funding for the NHRI, the bioterrorism budget can suffer a 7% cut. Another hurricane as strong as Hurricane Katrina is certain to hit a major populated area in the future, while a bioterrorism attack is not certain, and hopefully not even probable. There are wiser ways to spend our disaster preparedness dollars than what we are doing.

National Hurricane Research Initiative Act of 2006
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., introduced the National Hurricane Research Initiative Act of 2006, a bi-partisan bill that adopts the recommendations of the report. The proposed legislation puts NOAA and the National Science Foundation in charge of coordinating the research initiative. Not surprisingly, the bill is being co-sponsored by Florida's other Senator, Sen. Nelson (D-FL), and Louisiana's two Senators, Sen. Vitter (R-LA), and Sen. Landrieu (D-LA). Apparently, the Senators from the states hard hit by the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 felt that $300 million per year wasn't enough, and ask for $435 million in funding per year through 2017.

Some historical perspective
In 1898, the United States fought the Spanish-American War. With the U.S. Navy heavily committed to operations in the Caribbean during the height of hurricane season, Willis L. Moore, Chief of the Weather Bureau, saw the need set up an improved hurricane warning system. Moore took a long view through the history of naval warfare and discovered that more armadas had been destroyed by weather than by the enemy. He placed his findings before President McKinley, and proposed that the U.S. spend money to establish a new hurricane warning service, despite the fact that budgets were tight in a time of war. McKinley responded to Moore: "I am more afraid of a West Indian hurricane than the entire Spanish Navy. Get this [hurricane warning] service inaugurated at the earliest possible moment!"

The Spanish are no longer our enemies, but the threat of hurricanes remains and will worsen if we do nothing. I hope today's politicians will emulate President McKinley, and take the long view of history. In the words of the report's conclusion:

Can we as a Nation continue to remain vulnerable to hurricanes that are an inevitable part of our future, that have demonstrated the capacity to inflict catastrophic damage to our economy, and that kill hundreds of our citizens? The hurricane warning for our Nation has been issued and we must act vigorously and without delay.

I urge you to write your Senators to support S, 4005, the National Hurricane Research Initiative Act of 2006. Those of you in Louisiana and Florida probably do not need to write your Senators--they are definitely on board on this one!

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.