When Hurricane Georges was barreling toward Louisiana's coastline in 1998, no one knew how accurate the storm surges predicted by meteorologists would be, LSU professor Gregory Stone said.
Not a comforting thought for the 70 percent of the state's residents who live in coastal zones -- most of which are at or below sea level.
But Stone is trying to change all that, hoping to significantly improve the predictive power of computer models through measurement of storm surge and other oceanographic phenomena in the Gulf of Mexico.
This hurricane season, with the help of funding from several state and federal agencies, including a recent million-dollar grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Louisiana will be better prepared than ever to monitor hurricane activity in the Gulf.
Just two years ago, most of Louisiana's coastline was devoid of any type of accurate ocean-monitoring system, Stone said. Of the 20 federally funded weather buoys located in the Gulf, only one was near Louisiana's coast, leaving a vast gap in ocean-monitoring instrumentation. And the buoys that did exist did not provide any information on storm surge. So when meteorologists predicted the potential storm surge accompanying a hurricane, they were forced to do so without the key offshore information that could make the predictions more accurate. Stone said storm specialists constantly confront problems associated with lack of measurement data. In addition, flood maps used to identify areas of likely inundation by storm surges are not always correct, he said.
"In 1995, when Hurricane Opal hit Florida, the storm-surge estimates were seriously under-predicted," Stone said. "The experts predicted a surge that was 5 feet less than what actually hit the coast. That difference can mean the inundation of hundreds of square miles, which can impact thousands of people."
Stone, who teaches in LSU's Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, has been working to fill the gaps in the Gulf with stationary ocean-observing platforms that measure a wide range of oceanographic and meteorologic conditions, including storm surge and various wave parameters.
The program, called WAVCIS -- Wave/Current/Surge Information System -- is the most advanced program of its kind in the U.S., he said.
"We're trying to take the guesswork out of potentially dangerous offshore situations," Stone said.
In the past two years, Stone and his team from LSU's Coastal Studies Institute have received funding for four new platforms, one of which just went online last month. The stations, which were designed and built by Stone and his team, include instruments attached to oil platforms above and below water and on the floor of the Gulf. The information gathered at these offshore sites is transmitted to computers at LSU's Coastal Studies Institute via a satellite-based cellular telephone network. There, it is examined for quality-control purposes and distributed worldwide via the Internet. The data are also archived at LSU for ongoing research.
Added to the data collected from the existing buoys, the information from the new stations will help scientists and emergency-preparedness personnel more accurately predict storm surges and plan voluntary or mandatory evacuations.
"We now have more offshore information pertaining to waves and currents than we've ever had before," Stone said. "For the coming hurricane season we will be in a better position than ever to assess the early effects of hurricanes as they come into the Gulf. We have crossed a new threshold."
"Until now, no one has measured storm surge during large offshore events to the degree that we will. By measuring surge, predictions will be much more accurate," Stone said. "We will soon have instrumentation several hundred miles out into the Gulf. If we start detecting storm surge that far out, we can get a better read on the magnitude of surge closer to shore. The earlier we can get that information to the state's emergency-preparedness personnel, the greater the opportunity to reduce risk to life and property."
Stone said that, along with earlier warnings, the new stations will provide information on which areas of the coast would be impacted most by storm surge, winds and waves. Such information could help people prepare and, in turn, could save insurance companies millions of dollars in claims.
He also said the stations will provide for improved understanding of oceanographic conditions during all types of weather.
"We have already learned quite a bit about air-sea interaction this winter with having three stations online around the clock," Stone said. "I am very excited about having detailed information on offshore wave dynamics during big events such as Hurricane Andrew -- a storm that whet our appetites in 1992 for better measurements offshore."
Stone said there is a major effort in the U.S. to create an integrated ocean-observing system. Since LSU has partnered with several other institutions, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Texas A&M University and various research arms of the U.S. Navy, the university is poised to play a leading role in that effort, Stone said.
He also said the infrastructure he is developing offshore will give LSU an advantage over other institutions in obtaining research funding at the national level. Other grants that have helped Stone fund the WAVCIS project came from the state's Oil Spill Research and Development Program, the Louisiana Board of Regents and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. Stone also has grant proposals pending with the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Office of Naval Research.
For more information on the WAVCIS program, check the WAVCIS Web site at http://erin.csi.lsu.edu.
Materials provided by Louisiana State University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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