Policy Buzz: Senate Hearing Follows Tornado Outbreak

May 11, 2011 · 1 comment

by Caitlin Buzzas, AMS Policy Program

On May 3, Dr. William Hooke, Director of the AMS Policy Program, testified before Senator John Rockefeller (D-WV) and other members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He was joined by Bob Ryan, Senior Meteorologist at ABC7/WJLA-TV, Dr. Anne Kiremidjian of Stanford University and Dr. Clint Dawson of the University of Texas, together they discussed “America’s Natural Disaster Preparedness: Are Federal Investments Paying Off?”

As the hearing was convened in part as a response to the earthquake in Japan, Dr. Kiremidjian focused her testimony on earthquake and tsunami issues. Dr. Dawson discussed advances in storm surge modeling.

This hearing (full video here) took place soon after one of the worst weather disasters in the U.S. of the last century with tornadoes killing at least 327 in the South East. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this may have been the largest tornado outbreak in U.S. history. Although this disaster was horrific in terms of the many lives lost and the huge economic toll, the hearing gave our community the needed opportunity to highlight what we do and the importance of accurate weather forecasts and earth observation systems.

Dr. Hooke stated in his testimony that these systems and science play an especially important role in the United States:

Because of its size and location, the United States bears a unique degree of risk from natural hazards. We suffer as many winter storms as Russia or China, and as many hurricanes as China or Japan. Our coasts are exposed not just to storms but to earthquakes and tsunamis. Dust bowls and wildfire have shaped our history. And 70% of the world’s tornadoes, and some 90% of the truly damaging ones, occur on our soil.

Ryan emphasized in his testimony that amidst the many scientific improvements, the whole weather forecast process is a multisector enterprise that depends on the capabilities of, and cooperation with, Federal agencies.  The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is an example of that critical Federal capability. As Congress decides what to cut in the upcoming budget deliberations, programs such as the JPSS will have to get the recognition they deserve to keep functioning. The data and imagery obtained from JPSS will increase the timeliness and accuracy of public warnings and forecasts of climate and weather events, thus reducing the potential loss of life and property. This has a direct effect on the health and stability of our national economy. It is important, even in a time of economic hardship, to keep programs like JPSS fully functional for the long-term health of the country. Both Hooke and Ryan made this point. Said Ryan:

Some may argue that loss of polar orbiting data will not degrade our current weather/climate observing and forecasting skill . . . but, what if they are wrong! Polar and geostationary weather satellites are an integral and critical core element of providing very accurate weather forecasts and life saving planning and decision making for weather and other natural disasters from tornadoes and hurricanes to fires, drought, dangerous air quality and oil spills.

As Dr. Hooke highlighted in his testimony there are several other things that can be done to improve our current disaster preparedness:

  • Maintain our essential warnings system
  • Bring to bear not just meteorology and engineering, but also social science
  • Learn from experience
  • Build public-private partnerships
  • Explore No-Adverse Impact Policies for flood and other hazards
  • Track progress/keep score. (There’s more about this proposal on Dr. Hooke’s blog, Living on the Real World.)

The issues that our community deals with everyday, highlighted through a hearing of this kind, are not just important to the world of science and meteorology, but important to the health and stability of the American economy and public as a whole. I believe that Senator Rockefeller, Senator Nelson, Senator Boxer and others left the hearing with not only a greater understanding of our community and the important role that we play in the health of our country, but with a continued desire to highlight the importance of our work.