Hurricane Katrina in 2005 revealed that the U.S. was inadequately prepared to respond to and recover from a major natural disaster. A bipartisan report by Congress found that Hurricane Katrina “occurred against a backdrop of failure, over time, to develop the capacity for a coordinated, national response to a truly catastrophic event, whether caused by nature or man-made.”
Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst for the federal government to review, update, and improve hurricane response strategies and recovery plans. And, as hurricanes get worse due to climate change, these plans are crucial to ensuring the safety and preparedness of coastal communities.
When a hurricane makes landfall, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, takes the lead on the federal response to emergencies. FEMA runs the National Hurricane Program (NHP) to provide data, resources, and technical assistance for hurricane evacuation planning and response.
However, there are many moving parts to responding to a hurricane in its aftermath. While FEMA is the lead coordinator, NGOs, local teams, and other parts of the federal government have their own response strategies to help communities get back on their feet. Here’s how all these moving parts fit together and how better data can help coordinate recovery following a hurricane.
[Read more: How Data Can Reduce the Impact of Hurricanes]
Planning ahead: hurricane forecasting
Responding to and recovering from a hurricane takes a significant amount of planning ahead. One of the biggest obstacles to recovering from a storm is lack of preparation. “In the case of hurricanes and major weather events, physical and technical roadblocks often prevent response teams from obtaining critical data to track damages, prioritize response needs, and keep the public informed so that people know how to stay safe,” wrote Harvard Business Review.
Increasing the accuracy and scale of data collection can improve hurricane forecasting, giving response teams adequate time to prepare. For a targeted forecast of an individual hurricane, meteorologists must monitor ocean conditions multiple times a day from satellites and large, moored buoy platforms. This data is fed into two international forecasting systems: the UK Meteorological Office’s global model, and the US Navy Operational Global Atmospheric Predictions Systems.
While NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is able to predict the intensity of a hurricane season with high levels of confidence, individual storms are much harder to track.
Data is vital to lowering the response time and recovery period following a hurricane event. Regularly collecting data in real-time from even the most remote regions of the oceans allow government agencies to optimize hurricane forecasts, improve flood maps, hasten hazard warnings, and hone sea-level rise predictions. By providing open access to their global network of buoys, Sofar enables ocean insight when it counts. Providing the best marine forecasts, their data's accuracy can fortify early warning systems, providing coastal communities with enough time to evacuate, shelter in place, or receive aid after a storm has made landfall.
The immediate aftermath: hurricane response
A speedy hurricane response is contingent on well-coordinated data sharing in real time among various research efforts. A network of moored buoys is vital to that. Off the coast, they can detect storm surges and help response teams map out where to go first.
“For hurricanes or tsunamis, sensors can monitor water levels to send alerts at the first sign of flooding,” wrote HBR. “These devices can be critical for urgent decisions like whether to evacuate an area at risk of flooding, or how to guide residents to the safest exit routes ahead of an emergency.”
Sofar Ocean’s Smart Moorings provide a consistent pulse on the sea state, so communities can detect incoming storms and inform weather warnings. Strategies and decisions can then be made according to data patterns or irregularities, allowing response teams to prioritize neighborhoods most likely in need of assistance. This data can be triangulated with census data to understand whether specific rescue services — e.g., responders who speak a certain language — are necessary.
Likewise, buoys help Navigation Response Teams from NOAA provide services to impacted shipping ports. Emergency response units can use data collected from moored buoys to check sea levels, monitor surges, and understand when it is safe for ships to return.
Recovering from a hurricane
When it is safe to do so, teams can collect data to inform future hurricane responses. In Miami following Hurricane Irma, the Miami Department of Information Technology made it a priority to gather more accurate flood data.
“The city had models of storm surge from old FEMA maps, but wanted more accurate estimates of flooding,” explained one expert. “With this in mind, the city armed nine pairs of staff members from the Department of Planning and Zoning as well as four volunteer teams with Survey123 for ArcGIS, a tool that allowed users to input flood data from their smartphones.”
[Read more: Flood Maps Are Outdated - Here's How to Fix Them]
The city was able to publish an updated online flood map, making it easier for residents and responders to make better decisions using accurate flood information.
Onshore data, combined with data collected from offshore buoys better informs future hurricane preparedness efforts. Data can help the Red Cross plan where to locate its recovery shelters, keeping evacuation points out of the path of the storm and floods. And, data can help lawmakers understand where to allocate assistance — not only immediate help, like rescue services, food, and water, but also funding to rebuild homes and businesses.
Collecting hurricane data with Sofar Ocean
Sofar Ocean operates the largest private network of drifting buoys in the world. Equipped with a Smart Mooring, a Spotter buoy is able to report wave height and spectrum, peak period, wind, current, and surface temperature measurements in real-time. Sofar shares observation, forecast, and hindcast weather data from Sofar’s global Spotter network to allow agencies to better coordinate storm watch and recovery. With better data and more transparency, we can help communities recover faster from a catastrophic hurricane.
To learn more about mitigating the risks of storms, visit the Sofar Ocean blog.