NOAA Hurricane Forecasting
Opening Statement By Hon. Bart Gordon
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
This hearing today is vitally important. We’ve recently been reminded of both the power of weather and weather prediction, and I look forward to exploring these topics.
Over the years, we’ve spent billions of dollars on the Weather Service to improve our capacity to predict the weather. We do it not simply because it is good science, but because we can save lives if we provide accurate warnings of severe weather events.
We have also spent hundreds of billions of dollars on homeland security. We do it to enhance our capacity to stop terrorist attacks and to mobilize our nation’s forces in cases of catastrophic incidents - whether by terrorism or by natural disaster.
The goal in both sets of expenditures is to keep Americans secure and to come to their aid when they most need it.
In the last few weeks, one of these systems worked and one of these systems failed. And failure has consequences - in this case some of those who died, and we do not yet know how many, they died because the Federal Government did not get there in time. As Walter Maestri, the emergency management chief for Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish put it: “the cavalry didn’t arrive.”
The information regarding the power of Hurricane Katrina went right to the top. One of our witnesses here today conducted briefings that included the President, Secretary Chertoff and Undersecretary Brown.
The other witness heads an agency which has placed an employee inside the nerve center for the Federal government’s response to catastrophes: the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC).
As the graphic on the screen demonstrates, Secretary Chertoff is the head of that center and information is supposed to flow up to the Secretary from its work and also to the President.
So the information from the Weather Service was flowing to our emergency response leaders through two paths and yet our government seemed taken by surprise.
FEMA head Michael Brown said on CNN on August 31, “"I must say, this storm is much bigger than anyone expected."
Is it possible that the Weather Service simply wasn’t being articulate about the nature of the threat posed by Katrina? I don’t think that to be true, but we will have a chance today to confirm it.
Apparently one of our witnesses didn’t think it was true. Mr. Mayfield. According to a St. Petersburg (Florida) Times story on August 30, based on an interview with Max Mayfield:
“On Saturday night, Mayfield was so worried about Hurricane Katrina that he called the governors of Lousiana and Mississippi and the mayor of New Orleans. On Sunday, he even talked about the force of Katrina during a video conference call to President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.”
“I just wanted to be able to go to sleep that night knowing that I did all I could do,” Mayfield said.
On Sunday Mr. Mayfield conducted his regular presentation to the Hurricane Liaison Team/FEMA conference call. According to Mr. Mayfield’s press account and government records the President, Secretary Chertoff and Undersecretary Brown were on calls either Saturday or Sunday and we know from other sources that the President and Chertoff both were on line for the August 28 briefing.
On the screen is a photo released by the White House of the President participating in this video teleconference. On the screen in front of the President is Max Mayfield and over Mr. Mayfield’s shoulder is an image of a powerful storm: Hurricane Katrina.
In an article printed in the September 4 Times-Picayune of New Orleans Mr. Mayfield said, reacting to the claims by some that the storm surprised them in its ferocity and consequences.
“We were briefing them way before landfall.... It’s not like this is a surprise. We had the advisories that the levee could be topped. I keep looking back to see if there was anything else we could have done, and I just don’t know what it would be.”
I hope in your testimony, Dr. Mayfield, you can address whether anything else has come to mind that you could have done to get the attention of our emergency response leaders.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Opening Statement By Hon. Charlie Melancon
As you all know, my district suffered catastrophic damage and tragic loss of life due to hurricane Katrina. It’s hard to relate in words the situation that Katrina left behind. The challenges to rebuilding and putting South Louisiana back together again are complex and the progress is slow. The loss of life, livelihood, homes, and communities defies description.
But, the courage, resilience, and strength of Louisiana’s citizens is also evident. We have taken a mighty blow from Mother Nature and we’re stunned, but we’re still standing. We are going to recover from this and restore our communities, but we have a long hard road ahead. The Federal Government must work with the state and local governments to rebuild our communities, our livelihoods and the natural and the man-made structures that protect us from these storms.
We’ve heard criticism of the government response at all levels. In the midst of all this finger-pointing, however, I think it is important that we highlight the many local officials who took care of their people when the network to support them collapsed. If not for the efforts of these heroes, many people would not have evacuated and many of those who did not evacuate would not have survived.
My constituents are not interested in partisan bickering or Monday-morning quarterbacking. They need their immediate needs addressed and they need help to rebuild their lives. As Federal officials, we need to ensure the Federal Government is ready to respond rapidly to future situations where citizens are victimized by natural or man-made disasters. State and local governments cannot be expected to provide sustained response and assistance from within a vast devastated area. The federal government is the only organization with resources to provide the type of emergency assistance our citizens need.
We can learn from some of the Federal agencies that did perform well – the National Weather Service and the U.S. Coast Guard are two examples.
The National Weather Service worked cooperatively with state and local officials and with the media to get information out to the public. Their forecasts were accurate, and their warnings were clear. Without these forecasts and warnings, and the lead time they provided, we would not have been able to evacuate as many people as we did and the loss of life would have been much greater. Their performance emphasizes the need for Congress to ensure that this agency stays adequately funded.
To the American people and my fellow Members on this Committee – thank you. You have reached out to me and my district these past days and weeks and your generosity has not gone unnoticed. Rest assured, with your help, Louisianians will survive; we will rebuild; and our state will be strong again.
On behalf of my constituents; thank you Dr. Mayfield, and the other employees of the Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service for your fine work. I am anxious to work with my colleagues on the Committee to ensure that NOAA has the resources it needs to continue to improve hurricane forecasting. Additionally, I would also want to ensure that NOAA’s other branches have the resources they need to help us to rebuild our coastal wetlands and our fisheries.
Thank you, and I yield back my time
1 - Brigadier General (ret.) David Johnson
Director National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Download the Witness Testimony
2 - Dr. Max Mayfield
Director National Hurricane Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Hurricane Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration