Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center have struggled for more than a decade to issue accurate storm reports using broken equipment, an overbooked airplane fleet and tight budgets, the Miami Herald reported Sunday.
Key forecasting equipment used by the center has broken down or been unavailable for nearly half of the 45 hurricanes that have struck land since 1992, the newspaper found after an eight-month investigation.
"It's almost like we're forecasting blind," said Pablo Santos, a science officer at the National Weather Service's Miami office, which assists the hurricane center during storms. "We've never really had the equipment to do it."
Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield and four former directors acknowledged that equipment gaps have compromised forecasts, including those for Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Erin in 1995 and Mitch in 1998.
The equipment problems include broken devices such as data-transmitting buoys, weather balloons, radar installations and ground sensors, as well as hurricane hunting airplanes that are overbooked and unavailable to fly weather-observation missions.
"We need help," Mayfield said. "We need more observation [equipment]. There's no question."
National Weather Service officials cited the expense of the equipment and its maintenance. They also said there is an overlap, so if a radar installation or buoy fails, another one a few hundred miles away can help.
"Could the Hurricane Center do a better job? Yes. . . . But we're working within a resources-available environment," said D.L. Johnson, who heads the Weather Service.
After the 2004 hurricanes, Congress approved $8.8 million to fix damaged equipment, add buoys, upgrade hurricane hunter planes and bolster research.
The Herald reviewed audits, e-mails, government databases, maintenance records, accounting reports and congressional testimony, as well as flight logs and interviews. It found:
* Data buoys have been broken for months and weather balloons are inoperable or missing in some areas, especially in the Caribbean.
* Despite nearly $2 billion spent in the 1990s for Doppler radar installations and electronic weather sensors, they often fail during lightning and power outages in severe weather. The weather sensors shut down more than 60 times during the four hurricanes that struck Florida last year.
* The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's two hurricane-hunting turboprop planes are sometimes sent on missions during hurricane season that have little to do with tropical storms. And the budget for the agency's Gulfstream IV-SP jet is not enough to fly continuous missions during storms.
* Since 1995, NOAA's Hurricane Research Division lost 11 scientists and has replaced four, leaving 31 people and a base budget that has not topped $3.5 million in more than two decades. The researchers do not have time to study what they have accumulated: the life spans of dozens of storms that could help forecasters predict the course of new storms.
* Forecasters have struggled to predict rainfall after hurricanes even though inland flooding has become the leading killer during hurricanes. And storm histories could offer clues about what to look for in future storms that might intensify just before striking land.
* After each hurricane, the Hurricane Center verifies the accuracy of its forecasts. But in almost every case since 1992, the center has allowed forecasters to verify their own work. Some meteorologists say that is a conflict of interest and that the Hurricane Center should bring in independent experts to produce detailed studies after storms.