Federal Water Scientists Prepare to Weather the Big Storms

RESTON, Virginia, May 25, 2007 (ENS) - With the start of the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season less than a week away, the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, says it is better prepared than before to help the nation cope with the three to five major storms forecast for this year.

The federal agency says it can offer improved monitoring of conditions on the ground from flooding and storm surge, enhanced ability to navigate in a disaster zone, and better assessments of the effects of storms on coastlines and ecology.

"These coordinated actions will ensure timely and uninterrupted water information for forecasters, emergency managers, scientists and the general public," says Robert Hirsch, USGS associate director for water.

"Improved flood monitoring and assessment will help reduce the risks to coastal communities, property, and human life," he said.

USGS scientist checks the inner workings of a stream gage. (Photo courtesy USGS)
During the devastating 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, many USGS stream gages along and inland of the Gulf of Mexico were damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The damage resulted in interruptions of streamflow and water-level data needed during the storm by forecasters, emergency managers, and dam and levee operators.

With another very active hurricane season forecast this year, four major actions are underway to prepare for monitoring storm flooding, Hirsch explained.

The USGS will strengthen streamgages along the Gulf Coast; place rapidly deployable, mobile gages on streams; develop capabilities to measure hurricane-driven storm surges; and install an emergency satellite communications and data distribution system.

The USGS has a nationwide network of more than 7,400 stream gages but it does not cover every stream in the country.

The USGS is currently strengthening or "hardening" 120 gages along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Additionally, eight to 10 open-water tidal/water-quality gages are being hardened in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Streamgage data is critical for emergency managers during storms, therefore, the USGS has developed new, rapidly deployable, mobile stream gages to provide short term, water-level data in unmonitored areas where flooding is anticipated. These mobile gages also serve as emergency replacements for damaged or destroyed gages.

Storm-Surge Sensors

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita demonstrated that storm surge can be as dangerous as riverine floods.

In order to track the timing, extent, and magnitude of hurricane-driven surge waters and waves, the USGS has designed and developed a network of rugged, inexpensive water level and barometric-pressure sensors, called storm-surge sensors, that can be installed quickly in anticipation of a storm.


Hurricane Katrina's massive storm surge threw a barge inland and scattered cargo containers along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. September 2005. (Photo courtesy FEMA)
This information will be used to calibrate the storm-surge models used by forecasters along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts to help them forecast what lands will be inundated and to what depth in future hurricanes.

Currently, USGS water data are relayed almost hourly from stream gages to a single command-and-data acquisition station at Wallops Island, Virginia.

But this station is located near the coast, vulnerable to hurricanes and other storms.

To ensure the continuity of continuous critical data in real time, the USGS and its partners are establishing an emergency satellite data acquisition and dissemination capability at the USGS EROS Data Center, located far inland at Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This unit is expected to be operating by the end of 2007.

To acquire more complete satellite data, the USGS has worked with commercial satellite imagery firms to expand the global team of government and commercial space and satellite agencies that are members of an agreement known as the International Charter, Space and Major Disasters.

This agreement provides emergency response satellite data free of charge to those affected by disasters anywhere in the world. The Charter has been activated about 125 times since it began in November 2000, including here in the U.S. for Hurricane Katrina in 2005.


When Hurricane Katrina breached New Orleans' levees, flooding the city, conventional road maps became almost useless to locate people in distress.

As New Orleans is evacuated due to flooding caused by hurricane Katrina, members of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force attempt to find hurt and stranded residents. August 31, 2005. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino courtesy FEMA)
"Geoadressing," using GPS, satellite, and other remotely obtained geospatial information, proved crucial for search and rescue operations.

This season, the USGS has established a Geospatial Information Response Team, GIRT, to handle geospatial information for emergency responders on the Gulf and East coasts.

The GIRT is responsible for putting in place and monitoring procedures for geospatial data acquisition, processing, and archiving; data discovery, access, and delivery; and anticipating geospatial data needs.

During national emergencies, the GIRT can provide post-event airborne imagery within 24 hours upon request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Science Response Vehicle

In Lafayette, Louisiana, the USGS has based a new science response vehicle which can be immediately deployed to hurricane sites along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts. It was tested during a mock hurricane drill earlier this month.

Equipped with state-of-the-art satellite computer systems, the new vehicle will provide critical communications when other sources fail.

The vehicle receives weather and emergency information and also serves as a mobile laboratory, allowing collection and processing of field samples, including water quality testing on site.

It provides geoaddressing of 911 calls and reports of problems with critical infrastructure, such as levees, bridges, pumping stations.

The vehicle provides living quarters for a small team of scientists and response personnel for about a week.

Coastal Laser Mapping

The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons resulted in loss of sand from barrier islands along parts of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida east coasts, making these areas even more vulnerable to storm surge and waves this hurricane season.

In the coming months, the USGS and partners at NASA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will assess the erosion and sand loss using airborne laser mapping before and after all major hurricanes that make landfall in the southeast United States. The data will be made readily available for emergency planning and disaster response and recovery.

After the hurricanes of 2005, USGS analysis showed an immediate loss of 217 square miles of coastal lands.

A FEMA Inspector checks beach erosion caused by Hurricane Katrina at Grande Isle, Louisiana. October 20, 2005. (Photo by Marvin Nauman courtesy FEMA)
These findings are updated each growing season to evaluate coastal recovery from hurricanes and the persistence of coastal wetlands to global climate change and relative sea-level rise.

USGS is developing a special website and databases of biological and other data along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts that can be accessed immediately for scientific response, including more than 70 years of wetland change data. The site is online at: http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/hurricane/hurricane_land_change.htm.

USGS scientists conduct a host of other hurricane-related studies, such as the tracking and visualization of coastal restoration projects.

Some researchers do radar-tracking of migratory birds during the fall migration period to assess possible effects of hurricanes on migration patterns. Others study the spread of invasive species via hurricane-force winds.

Still others study global climate change and effects of sea-level rise on coastal wetlands and forests.