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White House requests $55 million for forecasting equipment

The White House has unveiled a spending proposal that would pump millions of dollars into badly needed hurricane forecasting equipment, saying the "extraordinary investment" is a first step at strengthening the nation's warning system.

Included in the $55 million request: new equipment for hurricane hunter planes, more buoys to track conditions in the ocean, a redesign of the sensors dropped into storms, and most notably, another highly equipped hurricane hunter plane.

"This request gets us back on track with significant funding for critical repairs and upgrades," said Alex Conant, spokesman for the White House's budget office.

The proposal, released late Friday, also includes among other things money for repairs to weather equipment and field offices—part of a $17.1 billion emergency spending package that now goes to Congress.

The White House earmarked most of the money for assistance and rebuilding along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. The largest single request—$6.6 billion—is intended for the Defense Department, of which $555 million would cover the pay and feeding expenses for soldiers deployed to the Gulf Coast after Katrina. Another $2.15 billion would go to repair military facilities damaged in the storm, including Keesler Air Force Base and Naval Air Station New Orleans, and $2.29 billion would be aimed at repairing Navy ships and other equipment and replacing water-soaked ammunition.

Also among the requests:

_$2.4 billion for the Department of Transportation to repair and replace damaged highways and air traffic control towers;

_$2.2 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, much of it to repair low-income housing units;

_$1.6 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers to restore New Orleans levee system, including $250 million to restore barrier islands and wetlands;

_$1.4 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs to build a new VA hospital in New Orleans and repair the VA hospital in Biloxi, Miss.

In a separate proposal, the White House suggested taking $2.3 billion beyond the $17.1 billion from programs it called low priority and applying that money to hurricane relief. The largest single amount, $641 million, would come from Department of Agriculture programs that still had uncommitted money.

The $55 million for new forecasting equipment comes amid complaints, documented in a series of stories by Knight Ridder's Miami Herald, by forecasters at the National Hurricane Center of broken, outdated and unavailable weather-observing equipment.

Though the Hurricane Center has made many good predictions, Director Max Mayfield, along with former directors, researchers and government experts, say forecasts for years have been compromised without weather balloons, dropwindsondes, radars, buoys and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's hurricane hunter planes.

NOAA, for example, has two $15 million turboprop planes with three radars and break-through equipment to measure hurricane wind speeds. The planes are better equipped than those flown by the U.S. Air Force Reserve for hurricane reconnaissance, but NOAA has diverted the planes during hurricane season for unrelated research missions.

The president's proposal would provide $9 million to buy a third plane.

The White House request comes at a time when devastating hurricanes are pummeling the United States and Caribbean at an alarming rate: nine of the last 11 years have posted above-normal hurricane seasons.

Earlier this month, while the Hurricane Center struggled to track the perplexing Hurricane Wilma, Mayfield called three countries in the Caribbean to find out why there had been no weather balloon launches, needed to track steering currents and other atmospheric conditions that can move a hurricane.

Mayfield learned the countries had been waiting for balloons and launching equipment to be delivered from the U.S. government, which signed a bilateral agreement years ago designed to protect the Caribbean and to give the United States an early warning for hurricanes in the region.

NOAA's hurricane researchers, meanwhile, say dropwindsondes—released from hurricane hunter planes into storms to collect information—have failed as much as half the time in strong winds before reaching a hurricane's surface. Though some improvements have been made, those failures and others have vexed missions this hurricane season.

The president's proposal includes money to redesign the dropwindsonde, answering the call of researchers and engineers who say NOAA has repeatedly denied the request.

The proposal also includes eight new buoys in the Atlantic Ocean to collect data about wave height and wind speed. And there is money to install backup power on the government's electronic weather sensors, which measure wind speed and rainfall and help forecasters plot the path of hurricanes on land. The sensors often fail in high wind.

Congress must approve the $17 billion package, which would be funded by redirecting money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund. The White House said enough money would remain in the fund to deal with costs associated with Hurricane Wilma and other disasters through May of next year.

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(Cenziper reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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