Lawmakers and experts said Sunday that the infusion of money is essential in the aftermath of a record-setting hurricane season that has included such killer storms as Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
"These past 14 months has been a wake-up call for anyone who lives along the Gulf or Atlantic coast," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. "This is money well spent."
The White House included the $55 million in NOAA upgrades in a proposal released Friday that would shift $17.1 billion from Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief accounts into such things as rebuilding damaged highways, repairing levees and fixing government buildings. The plan, which provides only a one-time cash infusion, requires approval from Congress.
The Bush administration proposal follows criticism from researchers and forecasting experts that the level of spending on hurricane-related programs is far lower than it should be, with many agencies lacking adequate staff and forced to use outdated or broken equipment.
Bob Sheets, former director of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, said the damage and deaths caused by major hurricanes this year have demonstrated to people the value of accurate hurricane forecasts. Improved accuracy also has an economic impact by reducing unnecessary evacuations and ensuring that people in a storm's path take steps to protect property from storm damage, he said.
"Once you get the attention of the public, you get the attention of the politicians," said Sheets, now retired in Lake Placid, Fla. "There are some things that can be done that are not prohibitive in costs, and maybe some priority can be placed there."
One big-ticket item in the request would be the purchase of another P-3 Orion "hurricane hunter" aircraft, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
NOAA currently has three aircraft — two 1970s-era, propeller-driven P-3s and one high-altitude Gulfstream IV jet — stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Although all provide valuable hurricane data from the eye of storms, they are also used for other research missions around the world and sometimes are not available when needed.
The White House request also would provide money for backup power and communications to coastal weather stations, to repair damaged weather buoys and automated weather sites, and to upgrade forecasting instruments for hurricanes, storm surge and flooding.
By Curt Anderson