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Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, today discussed hurricane forecasting improvements and the importance of being prepared in the event of a hurricane in a hearing he chaired on “Improvements in Hurricane Forecasting and the Path Forward.” Rubio also raised concerns regarding “hurricane amnesia” in the state of Florida.

Rubio asked Dr. Rick Knabb, Director of the National Hurricane Center, “I talked a little bit about hurricane amnesia and the ability to forget over time about what this is like… Time passes and people forget. You’ve been on the road now for the better part of last week traveling the Gulf Coast, primarily in Florida, talking to people about what they needed to be doing to get ready. What’s your assessment, how aware are people that hurricane season is upon us, how prepared are they, and what’s your sense of the standing today among the public about the upcoming season?”

Dr. Knabb replied, “I’m still very concerned that way too many people in the public, in Florida and in other states, are not as prepared as they need to be. One of the concerns is that, not only has it been more than a decade since the last Florida hurricane, but in that time frame we’ve gained something like 3 million new residents in the state of Florida and other metropolitan areas are similar…So not only do you have people who might have been through a hurricane in the past, and maybe they’ve gotten out of the habit of preparing or maybe they experienced the fringes of a hurricane in the past and they really haven’t been through the core of a major hurricane, or maybe they are new to the problem and have never prepared for a hurricane at all. I think there’s way too many of those people still out there.”

Earlier this month, Rubio met with officials at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami, Florida, to underscore the importance of being prepared for the upcoming hurricane season and to discuss improvements in the tracking and forecasting of storms, as well as storm surges. Also earlier this month, Rubio wrote an op-ed in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that highlights the importance of passing the “Hurricane Forecast Improvement Act of 2015,” legislation he introduced in 2015 that would improve guidance for hurricane track, intensity, and storm surge forecasts.

A partial transcript of Rubio’s remarks is below. A video is available here, and a broadcast quality video available for download is available here.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee Hearing
Washington, D.C.
May 25, 2016
https://youtu.be/29EfG9bnQjk

Senator Marco Rubio: “I wanted to convene this hearing one week before the official start to the 2016 hurricane season, and as the hearing title suggests, we will be focusing on improvements in forecasting and we’ll discuss how track and intensity forecasts can be further enhanced.

“Ninety years ago, Florida was hit by a Category 4 storm.  It was later named the “Great Miami Hurricane,” but it not only devastated Miami, but crossed the Gulf of Mexico inflicting damage to Pensacola Bay. This was a time with little meteorological data or capabilities, and thus, alerts to Floridians came too late. The National Hurricane Center reports that Coconut Grove experienced a 15-foot storm surge and people mistakenly left their homes as the storm’s calm eye centered overhead. It is unclear how many people perished, as the Red Cross estimates 373 souls lost their lives, but the count cannot be certain as more than 800 people were missing.  

“Although my home state of Florida has not seen a hurricane make landfall in almost eleven years, we must never sit idle and succumb to hurricane amnesia. Innovation is the key to ensuring lives and property are spared by accurate forecasting. This hurricane season there are two new tools which will be at the disposal of our researchers and forecasters. The first is called “The Coyote,” it is a small unmanned aerial system deployed directly from the P-3 hurricane hunters. This drone is able to fly into weather conditions that are otherwise impossible for manned aircraft, while capturing atmospheric observations and relaying that data in real time to the Hurricane Center. While this technology has been in testing since 2014, I hope it will fully be utilized in upcoming storms. 

“The second involves tools for storm surge, which are critically important as water is responsible for 90 percent of the deaths associated with storms. The Storm Surge Watch and Warning Graphic, while still in the experimental phase, will provide watches and warnings to coastal residents, similar to those issued for tropical storms or hurricanes, but will focus solely on the risks associated with high waters. In response to these risks, it will issue guidance for evacuations in the areas impacted. 

“The Potential Storm Surge Flooding Map, which began testing during 2014, will finally become operational this season. This map will highlight areas where storm surge could inundate areas and estimate the height at which waters could reach. One only needs to look at Hurricane Katrina to realize how devastating a storm surge can be. Not heeding storm surge warnings could be the difference between life and death. I applaud the National Hurricane Center for its work on this new tool and I stress the importance of educating people on the dangers of storm surge. 

“The need for timely and accurate forecasts cannot be overstated.  Indeed, advancements in forecasting have made great strides as technology and research have intersected. As our witness notes in his written testimony, the National Hurricane Center’s ‘five-day track forecast is about as accurate as the three-day forecast was just 20 years ago.’ 

“This improvement in modeling not only allows more notice for evacuations, which will help especially in the Florida Keys, but appropriately provides for proper planning and damage mitigation to be conducted prior to a storm. Also, increased confidence in the Center’s track and intensity forecasts will lead to the public’s trust in heeding those warnings. 

“Last year, along with my colleague Senator Nelson, I introduced the ‘Hurricane Forecast Improvement Act.’ This bill would require NOAA to improve guidance for hurricane track, intensity, and storm surge forecasts. It is modeled after NOAA’s Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project, which has laid the groundwork for coordinating and improving research. This program has a worthy goal of reducing errors in storm tracking, and with continued research, it is my hope a reduction in the loss of life, injury and economic harm will result. 

“Now is the time to continue the momentum for research and technology to drive our forecasters to better track storms, not cut millions of dollars from the Project as the Administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget suggests. I had hoped my legislation, which was adopted into Chairman Thune’s larger weather bill, would have made it to the President’s desk by now, but unfortunately it has been tied up due to unrelated issues.

“Nonetheless, I will continue to push for its passage and support the Center’s work for better forecasting. I must note that Senator Nelson has been a good partner in these efforts. I know he’ll be here in a few moments to speak to us as well and I look forward to continuing that partnership so that this does indeed get signed into law.     

“In closing, Floridians will always remember the year 1992 as the year Hurricane Andrew changed the landscape of our state forever. Noted as the third strongest hurricane to hit the United States, Andrew produced a 17-foot storm surge, was responsible for 23 deaths and caused $26.5 billion in damage. For the terrible destruction this storm inflicted on Florida, it also shed light on the need to be prepared. Last week, our nation recognized Hurricane Preparedness Week. Our witness, Dr. Knabb, took part in many activities throughout the Gulf Coast to increase awareness. Education, coupled with strong support from state and local partnerships, is the key to ensuring families have a hurricane plan in place. 

“At the end of the day, the most important function of storm forecasting is, indeed, to protect the lives of those we love. Floridians are incredibly resilient, but as we enter this year’s hurricane season, which I hope will not be active, I urge everyone to assess their risk, develop a plan, and be prepared.”

Rubio: “In my statement as I was opening up the hearing, I talked a little bit about hurricane amnesia and the ability to forget over time about what this is like… Time passes and people forget. You’ve been on the road now for the better part of last week traveling the Gulf Coast, primarily in Florida, talking to people about what they needed to be doing to get ready. What’s your assessment, how aware are people that hurricane season is upon us, how prepared are they, and what’s your sense of the standing today among the public about the upcoming season?

Dr. Rick Knabb, Director of the National Hurricane Center: “I’m still very concerned that way too many people in the public, in Florida and in other states, are not as prepared as they need to be. One of the concerns is that, not only has it been more than a decade since the last Florida hurricane, but in that time frame we’ve gained something like 3 million new residents in the state of Florida and other metropolitan areas are similar.

“I just visited Houston, Texas last week. Since hurricane Ike struck there in 2008, they have something like 1 million new residents in their metropolitan area. So not only do you have people who might have been through a hurricane in the past, and maybe they’ve gotten out of the habit of preparing or maybe they experienced the fringes of a hurricane in the past and they really haven’t been through the core of a major hurricane, or maybe they are new to the problem and have never prepared for a hurricane at all.

“I think there’s way too many of those people still out there, which is why last week during hurricane awareness tour, which was merged with the presidentially declared national hurricane preparedness week, the themes each day focused on things that people, residents of our states, need to be doing to get ready for the next hurricane. That’s why we focused on planning your evacuation route and destination in advance. Buying your supplies in advance, updating your insurance now because of those 30 day waiting periods for flood insurance, for example, and doing whatever you can today to strengthen your home.”