NOAA 97-R242

Contact: Frank Lepore                 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE


Good news, bad news mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Andrew's landfall in south Florida on Aug. 24, 1992. The good news: forecasters using the National Weather Service's modernized technology are better able to monitor and warn about hurricanes. The bad news: there are more people and buildings in harm's way, said the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Hurricane forecasting technology has made significant gains over the past five years," said Robert W. Burpee, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "But there's also much more at risk as populations grow along our eastern and Gulf coasts."

In the early 1990s, the National Weather Service, the hurricane center's parent organization, had just embarked on a 10-year, $4.5-billion modernization and restructuring program.

Even before Hurricane Andrew, the National Hurricane Center was among the weather service's top priorities. A new building specifically designed to withstand major hurricane (Category 3, 4 and 5 Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale) winds and flooding was being planned in 1990.

"A hardened building was needed during Hurricane Andrew," said Burpee. During Andrew hurricane forecasters worked on the sixth floor of a commercial office building in Coral Gables heavily damaged by the storm. Forecasters kept vital operations going despite loss of radar and satellite antennas. "Wind gusts of 163 mph battered the center, making frisbees of our 15-foot satellite dishes and kicking a vintage 1957 radar dome from its 12-story perch like some huge soccer ball. Back-up generator power was barely adequate to the task."

Even with the loss of local Miami radar during Andrew, a new Doppler radar from the National Weather Service office in Melbourne, Fla., some 180 miles away, painted the hurricane's outline very high over south Florida and gave hurricane forecasters vital information as they tracked the path of the storm. This month, the weather service completed installation of 164 Doppler weather radars around the nation as part of its modernization. Twenty-nine of these radars now serve hurricane-vulnerable areas of the Gulf and Atlantic coastal states. The radars allow forecasters to observe and calculate the speed and direction of severe weather elements such as tornados and violent thunderstorms associated with hurricanes.

Two state-of-the-art geostationary satellites (GOES-8 and -9) were launched in 1994 and 1995. Their high-resolution images and atmospheric soundings now give forecasters the continuous monitoring necessary for intensive analysis of the atmospheric triggers for severe weather conditions.

A new high-altitude jet, Gulfstream -IV(SP), was officially launched this hurricane season. The jet will probe the atmosphere below 45,000 feet collecting data on the mid-level steering currents never seen before and feed it to the newest computer model introduced in 1995 by NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, in Princeton, N.J. Over the last two decades, computer modeling has helped forecasters improve 24-hour storm track prediction by about 20 percent.

Preliminary studies show that data from the Gulfstream IV aircraft, coupled with soundings from GOES satellites, should further reduce forecast errors significantly.

"Advances in forecasting technology are vital," said Jerry Jarrell, the hurricane center's deputy director. "For every mile we don't have to overwarn' and evacuate, we save up to $1 million."

Hurricanes represent a growing problem for our increasingly crowded coastlines. "There are just more people and construction in harm's way," Jarrell said. "More population and property at risk mean longer lead times are necessary to prepare a community. Without technological advances and ongoing research, longer lead times would not be possible."

Studies by Drs. Christopher Landsea of NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and Roger Pielke Jr. of the National Center for Atmospheric Research suggest that coastal populations and construction have grown from Texas to Maine. Florida's population alone nearly tripled between 1960 (5 million) to 1995 (14 million). From 1988 to 1993 the total value of insured property in coastal counties (Texas-Maine) grew from $13.0 to $21.4 trillion. On average over the past 71 years, hurricanes would have caused about $4.8 billion in damage annually (when adjusted for inflation to 1995 conditions). Hurricane Andrew's toll was about $30 billion.