Disturbing News on the Hurricane Forecasting Front

15 04 2015

Photo-Hurricane KatrinaSo in my last blog entry, I encouraged taking hurricane preparedness activities for those that live in Fort Bend County; it is that time of the year, June 1st is the official start of the 2015 Hurricane Season.  It is important because the last hurricane strike in our region was back in 2008 when Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston County.

People have become apathetic about hurricane preparedness because they don’t really remember Hurricane Ike; and they don’t remember how bad it really was for many living in our region.  How soon we forget.

Then I turned to my latest issue of Disaster Research News published by the University of Colorado at Boulder. From its April 10th edition, Jolie Breeden provides information on some cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget that will reduce hurricane forecasting capabilities in the future.  I find these cuts disturbing.

Sure, examples of major hurricanes making landfall in the United States are not readily available from recent years— but the threat still exists—- and will continue to exist. Perhaps no major hurricanes will make landfall in the United States this year or next year; but it is simply a matter of time.  It is a question of “when” and not “if.”  And, when the next major hurricane makes landfall in the United States (and hopefully not in the Houston Urban Area), there will be questions about why the hurricane forecasting budget was slashed in 2015.  Here is Breeden’s article:

The Most Unkindest Cut: Hurricane Forecasting Takes a Hit

Jolie Breeden

It’s sometimes wise to stop while ahead, although probably not in the area of improving hurricane forecasts. Still, it seems the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has chosen to do just that with a nearly $10 million cut to its Hurricane Forecasting Improvement Program.

The cut, which represents nearly two-thirds of the program budget, was announced this month during a presentation at the National Hurricane Conference in Austin, Texas. According to presentation materials, the dearth of funds will likely result in a focus on more immediate forecasts (as opposed to 7-day forecasting goals), elimination of global modeling efforts, a reduction in funding to academic partners, and fewer real-time experimental products.

While the magnitude of the cut and the program elements affected are alarming, the National Weather Service’s Chris Vaccaro told Slate the outlook wasn’t entirely bleak.

“It’s important to emphasize that there is still funding for HFIP, work is still being done and advancements will continue to be made,” Vaccaro said, pointing to additional $4 million for super-computing that isn’t included in the cut.

Even so, scientists are concerned that hobbling the successful program—in five years the HFIP has made impressive advancements in both hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts—will have a chilling effect.

“It would be a shame to radically reduce this effort when gains seem to be in reach,” Bill Read, former director of the National Hurricane Center told the Washington Post. “While some improvements in the science of intensity forecasting may be attributed to HFIP over the past several years, more work is needed.”

Others point to the defunding as a myopic solution that will cost the United States more than it saves in the long run.

“Undeniably hurricane track improvement translates to lives and dollars saved,” Marshall Shepherd told Slate. “It is shortsighted to stunt this progress and hinder potential improvement in intensity forecasts. We can’t continue to be a culture that cuts progress, then panics only after a horrific tragedy.”

Lack of recent tragedy is perhaps one reason making the cut more palatable. It’s been nearly ten years since a Category 3 or stronger storm made landfall in the United States. Without the momentum of a recent disaster driving need, it can be hard to secure funding and prove program effectiveness.

Regardless of the will to continue funding at adequate levels, the NOAA budget (skip to page 758 for a quick access) clearly states the impacts of decreased support for the HFIP—coastal communities could experience unnecessary evacuations, NOAA’s reputation among the research community is at risk, and lagging improvement in HFIP models could affect a number of forecasting products.

But most of all, as University Corporation for Atmospheric Research President Tom Bogdan points out in an editorial that champions forecast funding in general, the biggest risks are those that cascade from not making long-term investments in much-needed science.

“The growing ability to forecast the weather plays a significant role in protecting our homeland, our businesses, our infrastructure and most importantly, our families and communities,” he wrote. “We need to continue to ensure that our society is prepared to meet the challenges and dangers of living inside Earth’s dynamic atmosphere.”





FCC Eyes Expanding Role of Travelers’ Information Stations

20 03 2011

Below you will find an article by Randy J. Stine.  It was published in Radio World on March 4, 2011.  This article does a fair job of explaining the discussion that is now taking place at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  Fort Bend County has a vested interest in the outcome of the FCC’s decision related to Travelers’ Information Stations (TIS).  Fort Bend County, with a population nearing 600,000, is a second tier County in the Houston area, north of Galveston and Brazoria counties.  The County utilizes TIS on a daily basis, but most importantly during times of emergency.  The County’s TIS was built out for the prime mission of communicating with the thousands of citizens who may be evacuating the Gulf Coast from Galveston and Brazoria counties during threat of hurricane.

The system was built following Hurricane Rita based on lessons learned.  We have designed the system to provide advisory services for the two evacuation routes that cut across the County— State Highway 36 and State Highway 6.   During such emergencies, such as Hurricane Ike in 2008, the system worked flawlessly and provided us an effective way of communicating important evacuation information to the public, including fueling information, weather information, as well as information about evacuation routes.

Our County has taken special interest in Docket 09-019.  Our experiences with TIS technology over the last six years have made us realize the value of using TIS for emergency and public safety messages.  TIS has proven itself during disasters as a reliable method for reaching travelers with emergency information.  Fort Bend County supports the American Association of Information Radio Operators’ (AAIRO) position regarding clarification and update of FCC Part 90.242 rules governing TIS.

It is the County’s hope that the FCC will recognize the critical importance of expanding current TIS rules to allow for a loosening of content restrictions for NOAA weather broadcasts (both routine and non-routine).  This is critical for us in the Gulf Coast area.  Additionally, the ability to use TIS for Amber Alerts, Silver Alerts, power outages, pandemics, and 9-1-1 outages makes sense—- it provides better service to the travelers, especially in areas of messaging not even contemplated when TIS service was initiated many years ago.

FCC Eyes Expanding Role of TIS

The FCC is considering making adjustments to the rules governing Travelers’ Information Stations.

On the table are requests from some highway groups and TIS stations themselves to increase their power levels and widen the types of programming the low-wattage AM stations can air.

This TIS road sign sits along northbound I-75 in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula leading to the Mackinac Bridge. Photo courtesy Mackinac Bridge Authority

The commission is considering requests from three different groups for modifications to existing TIS rules in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. In the proposal, the agency asks what kinds of limits it should impose on TIS stations, if it does in fact expand their capabilities.

Low-power TIS stations, licensed to federal, state and local governmental entities, are only allowed to transmit travel-related information. Specifically, TIS stations can broadcast voice information pertaining only to traffic and road conditions, traffic hazard and travel advisories, directions, historical and event information and descriptions of local points of interest.

Some TIS operators would like to include such things as Amber alerts, terror threat levels, NOAA weather forecasts, public health warnings and other information.

The 10-watt radio stations, most often found at 530 kHz, air advisories directly to motorists and are located near major auto travel routes, airports, parks or transportation terminals. The FCC established the TIS service in 1977 and authorized them on a primary basis on 530 kHz and on a secondary basis in the 535–1705 kHz band. Transmitting antennas cannot exceed 49.2 feet in height.

The U.S. National Park Service is one of the largest users of TIS systems, while the California Department of Transportation operates a system of 120 fixed TIS locations and another 12 mobile TIS facilities throughout the state.

The FCC estimates there are 1,300 TIS stations on the air in the United States. Stations typically can be heard in a three- to five-mile radius of the station’s antenna.

It’s not 1977 anymore

The groups requesting updates are the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; the American Association of Information Radio Operators; and Highway Information Systems. Each submitted petitions asking for varying degrees of modifications.

Eric Ehrenreich, attorney advisor in the FCC’s policy division of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said the bureau chose to combine the individual petitions into one NPRM.

“The commission is seeking comment on the specific changes to the TIS rules proposed by each petitioner and on the overall approach the FCC should take,” the FCC states in the notice.

The three petitioners contend that conditions have changed since the commission initiated the TIS service in 1977 and that the expansion of some of the rules would be in the public interest.

Highway Information Systems’ petition asked the commission to consider renaming the TIS service the “Local Government Radio Service” and eliminate the limitation that confines TIS stations to areas near roads, highways and public transportation terminals. In its petition, the group proposes that TIS stations be permitted to transmit information as determined by the government entity licensed to operate the station.

Highway Information Systems is a subsidiary of Vaisala, Inc., a Swedish firm that specializes in road weather monitoring systems. It purchased Highway Information Systems in 2009 from Quixote Corp.

Mike Kattich from Century Electric and Tom Coviak from Information Station Specialists install electronics and route services for a TIS station in Aurora, Ill. Photo courtesy Information Station Specialists

Several of the petition groups asked the FCC to consider allowing use of “ribbon systems,” in which several transmitters in close proximity broadcast the same material to cover a larger geographic area. Current rules preclude government entities from creating networks of stations.

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials asked the FCC to consider allowing Amber alerts and 511 service information on TIS facilities.

William Baker, president of American Association of Information Radio Operators, said his group believes the TIS service can be more valuable for public safety.

“Helpful content is out there now that was not envisioned by the original writers of the rules. Amber alerts, for example, were not available in 1977 when the TIS rules were adopted. The question is whether such critical content should be disseminated widely by all media but excluded from TIS.”

Baker and his group, which has 335 members, contend that public safety is everyone’s business. “Just because someone is seated behind the wheel of a car does not mean that they suddenly cease to have an interest in their greater safety.”

Radio World’s attempts to reach the other two petitioners for comment were unsuccessful.

Michael Williams, president of the Wildlands Residents Association-San Marcos Pass Volunteer Fire Department in Santa Barbara, Calif., manages a TIS station near State Road 154, where 11,500 motorists pass its location each day.

Wildfire advisories

“Changes in FCC regulations to provide a broader base of information would be helpful, particularly rebroadcasting of NOAA information directly from NOAA. We also get asked a lot, particularly by local emergency officials, about increasing our coverage area.”

Williams said since wildfire is the number one public safety threat in the area, it’s critical for his TIS station to be allowed to carry advisories from the U.S. Forest Service.

Information Station Specialists’ Field Tech Tom Coviak installs a Travelers Information Station. Photo courtesy Information Station Specialists

TIS proponents often argue that the stations could benefit the public even more, especially during power blackouts, when traditional means of communication are inoperable. According to the FCC, a significant number of TIS stations operate on solar power or have backup systems that would allow them to continue operations.

“The FCC has an interest in promoting policies that will enhance the effectiveness of public alerts and warning reaching motorists over diverse communication channels,” the FCC states in the NPRM.

In addition to increased content, the commission invites public comment on whether TIS field strength limits should be modified to increase coverage areas and whether to allow stations in more locations.

At least one broadcast consulting firm questions the soundness of any power increase for TIS stations, citing concerns about increased clutter on the AM band, and especially nighttime skywave interference.

“Any increase in power level and increase in the number of TIS facilities is obviously going to increase the noise level, or the noise floor in the AM band, especially during nighttime hours,” said Ben Dawson, president of Hatfield & Dawson Consulting Engineers. “Nighttime skywave propagation is so variable that any increases in signal will likely raise the noise level.”

Commercial broadcasters at first opposed creation of the TIS in the mid-1970s, claiming that it would duplicate information provided by commercial broadcasters, the FCC wrote in the NPRM. However, those issues were settled when the commission ordered that TIS services be non-commercial and low-power, experts said.

Still, the NAB, in comments on the petition for rulemaking filed by American Association of Information Radio Operators in 2009, said there was insufficient evidence to justify a major overhaul of TIS operations and therefore asked that the petition be denied.

Others, including National Public Radio, have voiced similar reservations about changing the TIS rules, arguing that the service is accomplishing what it was intended to do.

“The FCC must ask itself whether there is a compelling need to recast the existing TIS service and if doing so will merely duplicate existing and emerging broadcast services,” NPR said in comments filed in response to the petitions for rulemaking.

The FCC’s Ehrenreich said bureau staff will review public comments and make recommendations to the full commission, which will ultimately decide whether to modify the rules by issuing a Report and Order.

Reply comments to PS Docket No. 09-19 were due by March 7; initial comments were due by Feb. 18.





Free Online Symposium – Community Recovery from Disaster

16 03 2011

Given the recent catastrophe in Japan, this is a most timely event.  Lots of quality speakers including Chuck Wemple from the Houston-Galveston Area Council who will be presenting an article on economic issues in post disaster recovery based on his experiences in Texas.  Information about this free event is below.

The Public Entity Risk Institute will present its first 2011 online symposium, Community Recovery from Disaster, March 21-25, 2011. The symposium will bring to practitioners and public officials practical information about the latest research and lessons learned about the economic, social, physical, institutional and interdisciplinary dimensions of disaster recovery. These dimensions were explored in depth by top researchers in the field at the recent Theory of Recovery Workshop sponsored by PERI and funded by the National Science Foundation. This online symposium will investigate how these dimensions of disaster recovery could affect your community, and offer lessons that will help you prepare.

Each day of the symposium, registered participants will be able to log in and read the papers and post comments on the material presented and pose questions to the authors or other participants. Provided as a public service, PERI Virtual Symposium Programs are free and open to anyone with Internet access (registration required). Each morning, participants who enroll in the Symposium will be emailed a link to the papers being presented that day.

This symposium program will be moderated by Dr. Laurie A. Johnson. Laurie Johnson is Principal of Laurie Johnson Consulting and a senior science advisor to Lexington and Chartis Insurance companies. She has over 20 years of professional experience in urban planning, risk management, and disaster recovery management, and has studied most of the world’s recent, major urban disasters, including the Chile (2010), Sichuan China (2008), Kobe Japan (1995) and Northridge (1994) earthquakes, Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the 2004 Florida storms, and the World Trade Center disaster. In 2006, she was a lead author of the recovery plan for the City of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and coauthored the book, Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans, published in April 2010.

The following experts have been invited to contribute Issues and Ideas Papers:

  **Charles Eadie, Principal Associate, Hamilton Swift & Associates, will present a paper on the physical dimensions of disaster recovery.
  **Dr. Rick Sylves, professor and senior research scientist at the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management, Department of Engineering Management, University of Delaware, will present a paper on the institutional dimensions of disaster recovery.
  **Chuck Wemple, Economic Development Program Manager of the Houston-Galveston Area Council and manager of the Gulf Coast Economic Development District, will present an article on economic issues in post disaster recovery based on his experiences in Texas.
  **Dr. Rob Olshansky, professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will co-author the symposium introduction and synthesis paper with the moderator.
  **Dr. Liesel A. Ritchie, assistant director for research at the Natural Hazards Center, will present on the social dimension of disaster recovery.

Sign-up today for the free symposium! 

 





Ike aid slips away as House fails to grant extension

30 09 2010

As reported by Harvey Rice, Houston Chronicle, September 30, 2010……….

Scores of social service agencies will stop offering health, counseling, transportation, housing and other services today to Hurricane Ike victims after the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass a bill extending the deadline for Texas to use $94 million in unspent federal disaster funds.

“All the availability of the services will stop,” said Joe Compian, a board member for Gulf Coast Interfaith who lobbied feverishly for the legislation. Social service agencies will begin laying off employees today, Compian said.

A Senate bill to extend the deadline introduced by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn passed by unanimous consent late Wednesday and was sent to the House where it was expected to pass by unanimous consent as well.

But U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said that the Republican leadership in the House killed the bill by saying that they hadn’t had time to read it. “I am absolutely surprised about that,” Jackson Lee said, because the bill had bipartisan support.

The bill would have extended for one year the Sept. 30 expiration of a one-year social services block grant. Both houses adjourned early Thursday and are unlikely to return until after the Nov. 2 election.

Jackson Lee said she would urge Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to take administrative action to keep money flowing to Texas social service agencies until the House could reconvene. The House Democratic leadership is committed to taking up the issue again, she said.

“The main thing I want to give the community is hope,” Jackson Lee said.

Cornyn’s office said Texas would lose $94 million in unspent social security block grant funds. The money was part of a $600 million grant in 2009 to help disaster afflicted states, including Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana.

But social service agencies complained that red tape at federal and state levels kept them from receiving the money for six months, so they only had six months to spend the one-year grant.

Social service agencies also complain that the deadline falls just as the need for services is increasing. They said deadlines for similar grants to Hurricane Katrina affected areas were routinely extended.

Twelve counties in the Houston area received about $94 million. Social service agencies in Galveston and Brazoria counties, hard-hit by Ike, banded together and received about $33 million in social service block grants.





FEMA Awards Fort Bend County $2.8 Million for Ike Debris Removal

2 04 2009

dscn0016The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded more than $2.8 million to cover 100 percent of the cost of supervision for debris removal in Fort Bend County following Hurricane Ike.  Through its Public Assistance program, FEMA is making available $1,700,580 for the cost to monitor the removal of vegetative debris during the initial six weeks following Hurricane Ike and $1,118,877 for the same service in the months of October and November of 2008.   Once FEMA forwards the funds to the state of Texas, further management of the funds, including disbursement to organizations performing the services, is the responsibility of the state.

To view the entire FEMA News Release (March 31, 2009, #1791-459) go to:   http://www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=47842





Hurricane Ike Forums

5 03 2009

On March 11-12, 2009, Rice University will be hosting two public forums to discuss issues resulting for Hurricane Ike, and most importantly, lessons learned from the storm.  A panel of elected officials, journalists and scholars will discuss how the Houston Galveston area can be better prepared for the next storm.  

More on the planned events can be found at: http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/stories/2009/03/02/daily25.html