In 2016, the U.S. had more floods than any year on record. The worst was in Louisiana, where at least 13 people were killed and roughly 60,000 buildings were destroyed, costing $10 billion. There were 91 other weather, climate, or geological disasters in the U.S. last year including severe storms, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts.
Improved forecasting for response and mitigation of such events was the topic of a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. Chairman Richard Shelby (AL) set the tone for the meeting by acknowledging that severe flooding, extended droughts, and dangerous storm surges threaten communities across our nation, and improving our ability to predict and forecast these events will help save lives and protect property.
Repeatedly, senators and witnesses alike pointed to the success of the new National Water Model, a predictive tool that simulates water flow across the continental U.S. headquartered at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Water Center (NWC). Dr. Louis Uccellini (Assistant Administrator, Weather Services and Director, National Weather Service, NOAA) touted the NWC as a catalyst for enhanced partnerships that brings new science to operations and revolutionizes the agency’s water-prediction abilities. He stated that “these capabilities leverage the full range of NOAA’s water science and services, from improved seasonal predictions championed by NOAA’s Office of Atmospheric Research, to improved coastal water predictions provided by the National Ocean Service.” Dr. Antonio Busalacchi (President, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research) spoke of the success of the new National Water Model while emphasizing the great potential it has for future, location-specific forecasting. In describing what could be possible with robust funding, he asked the audience to “imagine turning on your television on the nightly news, and getting not just a weather forecast, but also street-level visualization of river and stream forecasting.”
Mr. Bryan Koon (Director, Florida Division Of Emergency Management; Former President, National Emergency Managers Association) expounded the need for accurate government-produced data and flood maps so that Americans can “understand their vulnerability to coastal and inland flooding.” With inaccurate or out-of-date maps, citizens and assets are placed in water’s way. He also advocated for stronger building and infrastructure code and for improving existing structures to stand up to water hazards. Despite potential expenditures, Mr. Koon declared they “will be more than justified by the reduction in response and recovery costs in the decades ahead.”
An important component of cutting-edge forecasting is creating and maintaining government partnerships with the private and academic sectors, argued Ms. Mary Glackin (Senior Vice President For Public-Private Partnerships, The Weather Company, IBM). She highlighted areas where closer collaboration would result in improved safety from water threats. Ms. Glackin believes the delivery process of real-time information to the public is too slow and that the private sector has capabilities in this area that are unmatched by many agencies. “For that reason,” she appealed, “the private sector must be more fully embraced by the government in the warning process.” Dr. Uccelini agreed, reiterating that science is moving forward based on partnerships that agencies need. He asserted “We can’t build a weather-ready nation alone. We can’t build a water-ready nation alone. I think our success will be based upon the health of the entire enterprise.”
Raising a pressing concern on many people’s minds, Ranking Member Jeanne Shaheen (NH) reminded the room that the current administration has proposed significant cuts to federal agencies’ research and data acquisition capability. She questioned what the fallout could be for the weather service if NOAA eliminates every state partnership outside of the weather forecast offices and fisheries, including programs like Sea Grant, Coastal Zone Management, Regional Coastal Resilience, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and even the NOAA Office of Education. Senators and witnesses agreed that with adequate funding, these programs and partnerships can save lives and help build a weather-ready nation.