Emergency warning system needs updating, lawmaker says



Miami, FL — Equipped with satellites, computers and other high-tech advancements, the National Hurricane Center has gotten better and better at plotting the path of dangerous tropical systems.

But the technology that forecasters and other federal agencies use to inform the public has remained pretty much last century television, radio, newspapers and, more recently, the Internet. For the most imminent emergencies, the system is actually middle of the last century that Cold War-era “beep, beep, beep” broadcast only on TV and radio.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., told forecasters and federal, state, local and Red Cross emergency managers on Friday that the nation’s emergency warning system needs to join the wired and increasingly wireless 21st century.

“The more ways in which the public can be warned, the better they can react,” said Diaz-Balart during a House subcommittee hearing on national and state hurricane preparedness held in Miami.

He is drafting a bill intended to push the Federal Emergency Management Agency to speed development of a warning system that would work across multiple platforms, from text to Twitter to whatever comes next.

Florida, which has experienced one or two hurricanes over the years, got high marks overall for its disaster readiness and response from Diaz-Balart and Washington, D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who co-chairs a subcommittee that oversees FEMA.

“Florida is the model for the rest of the country,” said Norton.

For instance, rather than waiting to buy goods and hire contractors after a disaster, the state already has stockpiled $16 million in water, tarps and other goods in a 200,000-square-foot warehouse in Orlando and more water and goods in Homestead. The official start of hurricane season is still a month away, June 1.

“This gives us the ability to get out in front of the disaster,” said Ruben Almaguer, deputy director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Since hammerings from hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, the state has used hundreds of millions in FEMA funds to strengthen essential emergency buildings, such as fire stations in Broward County, and to build massive reservoirs to ease flooding in west Miami-Dade County. It’s also working on expanded plans to address the needs of disabled residents.

Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the hurricane center, said forecasters had improved the accuracy of predictions by half in 15 years. With $17 million in federal funding, he said, they hope to do the same over the next decade and improve a weak spot  intensity forecasting.

For emergency agencies, the biggest post-storm concern is housing particularly if big cities get slammed by a catastrophic hurricane, which could leave tens of thousands homeless. Neither FEMA, the state nor Red Cross have enough trailers or shelters to handle such massive demand.

Norton demanded a count of available trailers within 30 days from Major May, FEMA’s regional administrator, and also criticized the agency for unresolved disputes with Louisiana and Mississippi over more $3 billion in Hurricane Katrina recovery costs.

There was another concern for Diaz-Balart getting timely warnings out to a populace that is more plugged in than ever, but not to broadcast channels used for federal emergency warnings.

Under a 2006 executive order signed by President Bush, FEMA began developing a next-generation system called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). The idea was to give the president and federal agencies and possibly state and local as well one system to deliver messages through a national patchwork of communications systems.

But development of the software and hardware required, which might run $40 million, has stalled.

Diaz-Balart isn’t on Twitter himself, but said he believes the hurricane center and state and local emergency managers ought to be. He hopes to see the system modernized within five years.

“Everybody is on their cell phones and Blackberries today,” he said. “I think the system we’ve got goes back to the 1960s or ’50s.”



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