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The Arc of NOAA's Assistance

​THE NATIONAL Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does a lot more than tell people when to break out their umbrellas. It forecasts natural disasters and plays an integral role in disaster recovery, according to Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service, who spoke as part of a panel of experts at the AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association) conference in Washington, D.C.

It was NOAA that warned the Fargo, North Dakota, area last fall that it would have a high probability of flooding this year due to heavy rains and snowfall. NOAA’s forecast provided regional officials with lead time to begin such preparations as stocking up on sandbags.

A lesser known role of NOAA is to help in disaster recovery. The organization played a major role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example. Some of NOAA’s work involved collaborating with researchers and members of the coastal community about the potential for harm from the spill. The agency also helped with cleanup and containment of the spill, using satellites and other tools.

The organization provided more than 6,000 official and unofficial weather briefings, with around 4,300 spot forecasts during the operation. That’s about three times the normal amount of spot forecasts provided each year.

“I don’t see us just giving you weather information, but helping interpret the impact climate will have on decision making,” said Hayes. He added that over the past decade, the United States has experienced more intense, high impact weather. This year, NOAA is publishing a proposal for partnerships with more than a hundred other organizations regarding the impact of water-related weather events.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Craig Fugate was on the panel as well, and he lived up to his reputation as a technology advocate. He pointed out something that NOAA is doing that takes advantage of newer technology to better inform the public: pushing out information via the Internet and mobile phones, rather than relying on television or satellites. Fugate spotlighted NOAA’s mobile weather service, which provides access to information via smartphones.

Fugate told Security Management that if more government agencies would provide information and data feeds like that, such as a list of nearby disaster recovery centers, someone in the private sector could develop an application that would aggregate all of the information for different users. Government agencies need to adapt to how the public is using information, he says, and provide it in a way that doesn’t dictate what users do with it.

Panelists also discussed what the private sector can do to help with disaster collaboration. Hayes says one step would be to adopt standard interfaces to make information sharing easier; another is to facilitate the availability of bandwidth use in disasters.

Fugate also discussed the idea of government moving data to the cloud, which takes data from proprietary servers and puts it into third-party servers accessible remotely. Fugate noted that many in government are resistant to change and are afraid of giving up control. But he said that budget pressures may encourage movement to the cloud to benefit from projected savings. It would help if the private sector could give the agencies some assurances that they are not going to lose control over their information, he added.