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Chairman Stevens Q & A with Witnesses
Chairman Stevens: I want to join all of you in thanking Director Mayfield and all of those who have supported us in this effort. You know, I’ve got to be a little provincial myself, one of the reasons I decided we should have a Subcommittee dealing with disaster prediction and prevention was that [visual shown of typhoon near Barrow, AK], the first typhoon in the Arctic that we know of – in ’03 it almost touched Point Barrow. You’re fortunate where you all live because you have the really intensive prediction. We really still don’t have it up where we are on the Northwest Arctic Coast. I do want to ask, particularly in regard to this, Mr. Mayfield, we’ve been reading all of us about the connection between this increased hurricane activity and global warming. Are you ready to comment about that at all? My scientists in Alaska tell me that connection is not really made yet. Do you have an opinion?
Dr. Mayfield: I do, Senator, and this is certainly a hot topic. You know, I’ve been in meteorology for 35 years now and from my perspective here we have cycles in regard to hurricanes there are cycles. With active periods and then inactive periods. For example, the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s were very, very active with lots of hurricanes – lots of major hurricanes – and then the ‘70s, 80s, and early ‘90s the numbers really dropped down. Then in 1995 it’s just like somebody threw a switch here and we’ve had a lot more hurricanes, not a record number of major hurricanes, but close. We’ve had a lot of activity again and the research meteorologists tell us that we are in for another 10 or 20 years or more of this active period here. Without invoking global warming, I think that the natural variability alone is what this can be attributed to and I think the important thing here that even without invoking global warming we need to make sure that we get our country prepared for what we think will be another 10 or 20 years of active hurricane activity.
Chairman Stevens: Thank you very much. Mr. Roberts, Senator Inouye and I have been working very closely with Senator DeMint and Senator Nelson getting ready to put in a bill that deals with a new national alert system. We hope that we’ll get bipartisan support and active support from the whole Congress on that. I want to thank you for what you’ve done and the broadcasters. Let me ask this, the Weather Bureau has a radio that is quite useful to pilots. I wonder if we ought not see if we couldn’t get that kind of radio back into the average family’s hands. I come from the generation when we only had radio, you know. And, we had a national alert system and we had it tested about every two weeks as I recall. Now everybody has cell phones or computers or God knows what that they’re using for communications. We don’t have a uniform mechanism to contact our people. What do you think about it? Should we find some way to go back to a uniform, it’s one thing to have a uniform alert system, it’s another thing to make sure that people have the facilities to get that. This alert system we are working on will try to fold in all of the means of communications. But, what do you and the broadcasters think about that?
Dr. Roberts: Well, Mr. Chairman, as you know, broadcast stations have been somewhat frustrated. Every TV and radio station in this country has EAS equipment. Now, in Florida after Hurricane Andrew, we funded a statewide EAS system. Our governor has two entry points. We have two primary stations in every operation area. Every county has operational equipment. Unfortunately, the country doesn’t have that. Now, fortunately after 9-11, Reynolds Hoover worked with NOAA and uses the National Weather Service, like the NOAA radios, but he’s now able – the National Weather Service is the only federal agency that can activate every single EAS monitor at every radio station, every TV station and every cable outlet. And, I think it would be great if we had the cellular world, Internet, I mean it’s the world where we’re going. But, I would agree with you on radio. After the disaster of 9-11, cell phones didn’t work within about an hour because they all got jammed. After a hurricane, radio is the only thing left and I think we’ve got to keep it as the basic ingredient. I mean satellite dishes move. If somebody said, “Well, you could use the satellite television.” I say, “Well, you know in a hurricane dishes move and once it moves a little bit, you get nothing else.” So, I think what the whole country needs, I mean every governor should be able to warn its people and the President should be able to warn its people, whether it’s a county because it’s a wildfire or a chemical spill or the nation if it’s a terrorist attack. And, unfortunately, right now the country has a very inadequate system, basically doesn’t have a system. I think four governors can activate.
Chairman Stevens: I don’t know who ask this of, but you know that I live in earthquake country and we have a building code for earthquakes, and we have a building code – you can’t get insurance unless you have compliance with it for earthquake protection. Are we near the point now where we ought to start talking about some different types of building codes and other things to prevent the damage we’ve seen from this hurricane or is that possible? Mr. Levitan, are you involved in that?
Dr. Levitan: Yes, very involved. We’ve made significant improvements. The building codes which are out there right now, if they’re adopted and enforced, would prevent quite a bit of the damage. The study done by the Institute for Business and Home Safety following last year’s hurricanes in Florida of thousands of homes shows that after Florida adopted two years ago the statewide mandatory building code, buildings built to that code suffered only about half as much damage as other buildings. And, many buildings were undamaged. We certainly also need to work to improve the building codes as well and one opportunity to do that, last year the Congress authorized the creation of a National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program, but it has not been appropriated. Unfortunately, Public Law 108-360 was authorized for $22.5 million to help do exactly just that, to bring the technologies to improve the codes where we have, but that has not been appropriated, so I urge Congress to immediately authorize the appropriate funds for that will help to improve the codes.
Chairman Stevens: Thank you. I promise you, we’ll look into that. I just happen to be on that Committee. We’ll look at that. Lastly, let me ask you this. We’re really dealing with disaster prediction and you all are involved with that and prevention. Is there any means of deterring these forces? Have we looked into that? I mean, I remember cloud seeding and all the rest of the things we went through in the 50s and 60s. Is anyone still looking at that?
Dr. Mayfield: The government is not looking at that, Mr. Chairman. We did have the Project Storm Theory going on there for a couple of decades and the idea was to seed the outside of the eye wall with silver iodide, with the idea of expanding the eye wall, like the ice skater. If you expand your arms, you’ll slow down, but then along came Hurricane Alan in 1980 and it went from Category 5 to Category 3, five, three, five, three, three different times all on its own. And, if nature can do that on its own it’s very, very difficult to even detect what man has done. So, as far as I know, there are no formal government programs on this. I have heard of a few in the research community that are thinking about it, but I am not going to hold my breath.
Chairman Stevens: I’m not going to get into this business about finger pointing as the Senator has mentioned, but in 1997-98, we mandated the creation of a disaster plan for New Orleans and at that time I was informed that Level 3, would be the level we should talk about because everyone knew if it reached Level 4 or 5, the levees in New Orleans would fail. Are we capable of making such a judgment in areas where storms are prevalent as to what facilities will fail? Could we get a study of what facilities will fail and try to see if we can buttress them up in the event we had a similar hurricane again?
Mr. Curole: Defintely, there is enough science out there that we can build structures that can do the job for us, but just like any structure they are designed for a certain level of protection. We saw the failure along the flood walls. It’s very important that we find out exactly what worked and didn’t work as far as structural flood protection. Now, I want to remind everybody that our goal when we build these structural protections, it’s to buy us time to get out. Our philosophy in building these things is that they protect property, we would prefer getting people out and that is going to be continuing because no one can tell for sure whether a large barge will get loose and run into a structure and cause failure. So, our goal is to build to that level of protection, get our people out, and in most instances we come out ok. These systems do work, but as you mentioned the Category 3 exercise that we had with Hurricane Pam, we just floated the city with 10 feet of water and we expected this type of problem that took place. Having a Category 4 hurricane, you’re bound to run into these problems, but St. Bernard Parish, which had a good, well-maintained system was over-topped early in the ball game and it’s a Category 3 hurricane system. Plackman Parish levee system, well-maintained, well-designed still was over-topped because it wasn’t designed for the height of water that Hurricane Katrina put in that area.
Chairman Stevens: Well, thank you all again. Thank you Mr. Chairman, Senator Nelson. We’ve had a lot of bad news coming out of this area, this disaster area, but I think we wanted to have this hearing because this is the good news. We had a system for prediction. It was fulfilled. Director Mayfield you and your people did a marvelous job. I think those people that did get away from that storm really owe their lives to you and the people you work with. We’ve got to find a way to deal with those who can’t get out. That’s one lesson we’ve learned from this. But, as far as the ability to predict and to give the message, I think we now have a sufficient time warning on these storms and I think you’ve just done one tremendous good job. So, I thank you all. Thank you for this hearing.
Opening Statement of Senator David Vitter
Mr. Chairman, at your June 26th hearing on hurricane prediction, I gave an opening statement describing a ‘worst case scenario’ – the hypothetical situation of a major hurricane having a direct hit on the parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines and on the city of New Orleans.
We used posters showing the National Weather Service’s predictions of inundation in these areas. Computer models showed up to 18 feet of water in the city of New Orleans.
At that hearing I expressed my frustrations with the policy at every level of government being reactive to disasters instead of being proactive to prepare and prevent these disasters from ever occurring. My exact quote was “we can spend millions now preparing for a disaster, or we can spend billions later responding to a disaster.”
Finally, I said, “it is not if we are hit by a hurricane, but when the disaster occurs.”
Mr. Chairman, we know the “when” – it was August 29th – two months to the day following your hearing. Both hell and high water came to Louisiana and Mississippi. Now we are spending the billions responding.
This did not have to happen. It did not have to be this way. Hundreds (or thousands) did not have to lose their lives. Unlike the tragedy of September 11th or the tsunami last year in the Indian Ocean, there was no element of surprise. We knew what was going to happen, and we knew when it was going to happen.
There has been an extraordinary amount of finger pointing and partisanship in the aftermath of Katrina. In all of this political posturing, some very bright lights have been ignored.
Due to the great work of Director Max Mayfield and his team at the National Hurricane Center, we knew exactly where Hurricane Katrina was going to make landfall 56 hours before the storm came ashore. That is enough time to drive from New Orleans to New York – twice – with a good night’s sleep both times. Director Mayfield, as you know, hundreds of thousands of Louisianans did load up their families and evacuate. Thank you to you and your team for your hard work.
Another bright light back here today is Marc Levitan of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. Marc’s team provided data predicting that the levees on Lake Pontchartrain would be topped a full 36 hours in advance of the storm. New Orleans is a bowl. A topped levee means widespread flooding.
Another witness here today, Windell Curole, has been expressing his concerns of Louisiana’s hurricane preparedness for years. Windell brought this to our attention and helped Congress design the ongoing hurricane protection evaluation currently underway by the Corps of Engineers.
Again, it did not have to happen this way.
Now we are moving toward the recovery and rebuilding phase of this disaster. Some estimates have exceeded $300 billion dollars, and a few Members of Congress have expressed reservations with the restoration price tag. For those that view this as a parochial issue or an unjustified need, let me assure you otherwise.
Every single one of your constituents have felt the pain of Hurricane Katrina through higher energy prices. Gasoline prices alone have escalated 90 cents a gallon in some areas due to the hurricane. Offshore Louisiana and our associated infrastructure provide 20 percent of this nation’s energy. Our waters have provided this country with nearly $140 billion for the U.S. Treasury in the form of energy royalties. Our state also has 16 percent of the nation’s refining capacity.
The ports between Baton Rouge and New Orleans comprise the largest port system in the world. We provide 36 states with maritime commerce and mid-western farmers depend upon our ports and waterways to get their crops to market.
Finally, Louisiana’s offshore industry provides up to 30 percent of the domestic seafood consumed in this country – shrimp, crawfish, oysters and many more. Much of our ecosystem and fishing fleet is destroyed.
Daniel K. InouyeSenator
In less than a year, we have witnessed two deadly natural disasters that have shocked the world and highlighted the urgent need to prepare adequately for almost unimaginable events.
First, the Indian Ocean tsunami brought the world’s attention to the terrible toll tsunami can take on vulnerable coastal areas. But so much closer to home, we watched as a disaster of similar magnitude struck our shores along the Gulf Coast. While the causes were different, a tsunami and a coastal hurricane, the mechanisms of coastal death and destruction were the same.
Unlike the tsunami, we were adequately warned of Hurricane Katrina’s ferocity, and I commend our witness, Mr. Max Mayfield, and his colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - including those operating NOAA’s all-hazards warning system - for doing an outstanding job. Your forecasting was one of the few aspects of the federal response that can give us any satisfaction, and your success only underscores how important it is that we do everything possible to support your excellent work.
Katrina demonstrated, with startling clarity, that disaster preparation and response plans mean nothing when the execution fails. The ineptitude of the federal government response was particularly shocking, because we expected so much more 4 years after September 11. It appeared as though we learned nothing, despite several days advance notice.
Yet at this pivotal moment - when the lessons are clear and the expectations for improvement are enormous - it is entirely possible that intense budget pressures will both undermine our ability to improve our future response capabilities and erode the exceptional level of service provided by agencies such as NOAA and the Coast Guard. Ironically, the cost of recovery from this disaster, coupled with the war in Iraq, has the potential to threaten our preparedness for the next one.
Even before Katrina struck, we learned that budget pressures were driving the Administration to reduce hours and personnel in local Weather Forecast Offices in the next budget cycle. That is one plan the President should shelve immediately. Further, this Administration should not exacerbate the problem by failing to reimburse NOAA and the Coast Guard for its outstanding work in response to Katrina. Such a refusal is shortsighted and has the appearance of punishing the only two federal components that did respond adequately to our citizens. To deny them necessary resources to continue to operate at current levels is to place our citizens at greater risk from a future disaster.
From the Committee’s long experience with natural disasters, we know that accurate prediction is only the first critical step. Effective preparation for catastrophic events encompasses a series of linked activities undertaken cooperatively, far in advance of a natural disaster, and it requires a committed level of funding over the long term.
Just as we did earlier this year in the Tsunami Preparedness legislation, we need to ensure that people know what to do when they are warned. Federal, state, and local governments, working with outside partners, need to have a coordinated response, and each needs to help educate at-risk communities on how to respond to natural or man-made disasters. After all, no matter how people receive a warning, the information is useless if they do not know how to respond.
The United States can obviously do better at preparing for natural and man-made hazards, and the response to the string of hurricanes that battered Florida last year is proof that we are capable of it. Close coordination between local governments and emergency personnel there resulted in a much more timely response to all four hurricanes. However, we cannot make this experience the national standard by stripping resources from the agencies that provide our core prediction, warning, and response capabilities.
This Committee must fully exercise its oversight authority on this critical point, and I urge my colleagues to join me in this effort.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Max MayfieldDirectorNational Hurricane Center
Mr. C. Patrick RobertsPresidentFlorida Association of Broadcasters
Dr. Marc L. LevitanDirectorLouisiana State University Hurricane Center
Dr. Keith G. BlackwellAssociate Professor of MeteorologyCoastal Weather Center, University of South Alabama
Mr. Windell CuroleGeneral ManagerSouth LaFourche Levee District
SENATE COMMITTEE ON COMMERCE, SCIENCE AND TRANSPORTATION SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISASTER PREVENTION AND PREDICTION SEPTEMBER 20, 2005 Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify concerning hurricane preparedness. My name is Windell Curole, General Manager of the South Lafourche Levee District. No area is more dependant upon the Hurricane Center and its predictions than Lafourche Parish. I say that because we have a roadway that is only about three-quarters of a foot above normal summer-time high tide. That roadway leads to Grand Isle, our only inhabited barrier island in Louisiana, and also to Port Fourchon which supports deep offshore oil. That same road that leads to this port is the only evacuation route for 6,000 people who are working on offshore platforms. The work that the Hurricane Center performs is critical and I’ve always appreciated their work. They are precise on what they expect from a storm. They make clear the accuracy of their predictions and the possible variations. I have been indirectly advising evacuations since 1982, and since 1992 directly advising our parish presidents. Training at the Hurricane Center was invaluable in interpreting the Hurricane Center’s projected storm tracks. The most important lesson is that predicted landfall cannot be guaranteed. Some conditions allow for more accurate projections, and some atmospheric conditions make projections very difficult. In either case, the Hurricane Center’s information is the basis of our actions. Our job on the local level is to educate people of the risk, direct our people from that risk, and provide the avenues to do so. Our goal is to try to help people understand their risk and to take appropriate action. In the end it is an individual’s decision which controls their fate. It’s the individual who makes the decision to leave or stay. In fact, when you order an evacuation, you’re ordering the retreat of an untrained army. The retreat of a trained army is a very difficult thing to do. We work very hard to help people understand that it is an individual decision and that if you do not make the right decision, you will cause you family to suffer. Correct decisions minimize that suffering. Educating the individual must be central in all emergency preparations on the local level. The problem is to describe a vision of which an individual has no experience, and then have them move time and again, even when the vision does not materialize. To develop that vision, I employ historical data and pictures along with LIDAR and computer generated images to illustrate possible flooding and damage. Anniversaries of major storms are highlighted to remind us what has happened and what could happen again. We organized a centennial commemorating the hurricane of 1893 which killed over 2,000 people in Louisiana. We produced an award-winning play of that hurricane which played to sold out performances that left some members of the audience shaken and emotional. Our mission was to insure that people do not forget the story or lessons from that storm. This past year I strongly encouraged New Orleans television stations to center their hurricane season specials on the 40th anniversary of Hurricane Betsy, the last powerful hurricane to greatly affect southeast Louisiana. Yet, with all of the videos, articles, talk shows and presentations, some people will never believe or understand the extreme threat that a category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane poses. That segment of the population’s lack of understanding must also be part of emergency planning. Comprehensive Hurricane Protection is a concept which integrates hurricane protection levees, restoration of natural systems, hurricane evacuation routes and improved building techniques for individuals. Resolutions by parishes and the State Senate Concurrent Resolution in 1999 support the concepts of this integration of infrastructure, along with a re-evaluation of hurricane projects to provide protection for category 4 or 5 storms. After Hurricane Georges in 1998 it appeared the state would work on this concept, but they chose to concentrate only on coastal restoration instead of the broader issues. On the federal level we also had little success. Congressman Tauzin was able to generate committee reports suggesting FEMA conduct certain investigations. However, he had little support from FEMA which led to no results. What did eventually lead to positive results was the creation of the Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Task Force. The Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Task Force was formed after Hurricane Andrew to improve the coordination of local, state and federal agencies. As we watched the horror of the people who did not have the transportation to leave the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, we saw a total failure. But the fact is that had it not been for the continued pressure of the Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Task Force, people who had the means to leave before the storm, would not have been able to do so. Evacuation studies had indicated that it would take 50 to 72 hours to move people out of metropolitan New Orleans. With hurricane track errors too great beyond 48 hours, the task force championed the reversing of interstate lanes so that almost all lanes were directed out of the city. The Southeast Louisiana Task Force, after years of trying, was successful in convincing the state into instituting contra flow. Before this, some of those people who did get out of the city for Hurricane Katrina, would not have been able to get out in time. As bad as the situation was for Hurricane Katrina, it would have been much, much worse had it not been for the work of the Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Task Force. Levees, highways and our natural barriers protect and support an area which provides critical international trade, 25% of the nation’s oil infrastructure, major shipbuilding and the 2nd largest fisheries in the U.S. Protection of those interests also protects the 2,000,000 people who live and work there. Maintenance and improvement of that infrastructure is critical for the successful planning and execution of emergency plans which minimize the loss of life and property.