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New system tracks storm surge

BY JOSHUA LEWIS | Baton Rouge, LA | March 7, 2000

Louisiana has added a new weapon to its disaster preparedness arsenal.

Last week researchers began installing the Wave-Current Information System, or

WAVCIS, a state-of-the-art instrument array capable of providing real-time data on

storm surge and other factors affecting vulnerable coastal communities during

hurricanes and smaller disturbances in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Storm surge is really a big problem, because it floods everything. And everything is

so low in Louisiana that it just creeps in like a blanket and causes the damage. 'The

silent killer' is what they often refer to it as," said Greg Stone, a researcher at the

Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University who is spearheading the


"But if we begin out at what we call the shelf break to detect that storm surge very

early, several days ahead of time, then all of that information can quickly go to the

appropriate offices, like the Office of Emergency Preparedness. They can make

calculations, they can run simulation models that will fairly accurately these days

predict the degree and intensity of inundation," Stone said.

Such predictions would provide a decided advantage to the disaster response


"We've been following ( WAVCIS) with some keen interest," said Col. Michael L.

Brown, assistant director of the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP).

"What it does is it gives us an opportunity to better understand where to marshal

our resources -- what area's going to be most affected, that sort of thing. So we're

very excited about this and the potential that it presents."

The ultimate aim would be to combine that data with mapping technology "so that

we can get some real-time flood data," Brown said.

Both OEP and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are financial supporters of the project.

Faith-based response personnel expressed enthusiasm for the project as well.

"The most important part (of the response effort) is the early prediction of a hurricane," said Tony Fontenot, incident coordinator for the

Disaster Response Team of the Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church. "It takes a lot of time to get people from the coast

north," he added.

The added lead-time that WACECIS makes possible will be extremely valuable, he said.

The new warning system would not only be valuable for evacuation, said Robert Ross, co-coordinater of the Disaster Response Team and

board member of Louisiana Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

It would allow earlier formation of cleanup teams and other response personnel and allow them to be ready immediately after the disaster.

"If we know this area here is going to have more water than others, then we know that after a certain period of time, when that water

recedes, we're going to need 'x' amount of people in here right now," Ross said.

It will allow them to form their response teams more efficiently, Fontenot added.

Fontenot is also in the beginning stages of establishing "Operation Exodus," a plan to identify and then help move during the approach of a

major storm, people who can't do it themselves: the elderly, the poor, the infirmed.

Records would be kept in area churches and updated annually, so people could be quickly located and transported out of the threatened


Evacuation from the path of a major hurricane is a particularly serious issue in Louisiana, where 70 percent of the population resides in the

coastal zone, Stone said.

Add to that another statistic, that 90 percent of the coastal zone is at or below sea level, Stone said, and "there you have it, the worst case

scenario" for a hurricane disaster in the country.

"We have the most to lose than anywhere in the United States."

And within Louisiana, the place with the most to lose is New Orleans. The city is at "what I call the bottom of the soup bowl," Stone said.

The pumps that habitually keep the city dry will be overwhelmed when a major storm hits the city, he added.

Louisiana State Climatologist Jay Grymes described New Orleans as the second greatest natural disaster waiting to happen, "behind the

weekend when California slides into the Pacific Ocean."

Nor is the state's history with hurricanes very reassuring.

"When you start thinking about the big hurricanes, catastrophic hurricanes, like Category 3 and above, when you go back over the last 100

years, what you see is that south central Louisiana has the highest incidence of impacts from these major hurricanes than anywhere else in

the country," Stone said.

Yet it is precisely this stretch of coast that has been left uncovered by federal buoys and other monitoring stations that could provide better

early warning information. WAVCIS will close that gap.

The system's instruments are secured to existing platforms in the Gulf, ones which have already survived several hurricanes and stand a

good chance of doing so in the future, Stone said. Ultimately, ten platforms will be outfitted with equipment to measure everything from

wind speed and barometric pressure to wave height, water level and current speed.

As it is gathered, information is shot via cellular telephone to a satellite, where it relayed to receivers at LSU and into Coastal Studies

Institute computers. It then travels over a high-speed network to the agencies that can use the data in their response efforts.

The system's benefits extend beyond predicting the effects of hurricanes. "While we tend to focus on tropical storms, there's actually a lot

of value there for winter storms as well, which also have the potential of being quite damaging along the fragile coastal zone," Grymes


The information provided by the new system will also aid oil spill response and will serve to create a database for wetland restoration


Preservation of coastal wetlands in the area is key, Stone said, because they act as a buffer, reducing storm surge and wind energy of


"Winds are a problem, but it's the wave action that really does the damage," Grymes said.

Much of a hurricane's destructive power comes from the storm surge, "which is sort of the bulldozer," and from the waves that pile up on

top of the surge, he said.

"So here, we'll have the opportunity to watch in real-time as those conditions develop out many miles offshore. We're talking here about

some really cutting edge technology."

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