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Op-Ed: Commerce Department Helps Americans Prepare, Recover from Storms

With the start of the 2018 hurricane season, timely and reliable information is critical to guide effective operations for emergency preparedness, response and recovery. Agencies across the U.S. Department of Commerce, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Census Bureau, the Economic Development Administration, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology are helping American communities prepare for and recover from damage caused by hurricanes and other natural disasters.

During last year’s devastating hurricane season, NOAA provided critical forecasts on the path and scope of major hurricanes, including Harvey, Irma and Maria. When Americans needed it most, NOAA’s "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft produced more than 500 hours of data for forecasters and emergency responders. NOAA’s National Weather Service also embeds its meteorologists with federal, state and local emergency operations centers before and during storms to help emergency managers use real-time weather forecasts to understand potential impacts of a storm.

Earlier this year, NOAA upgraded its combined weather and climate supercomputing system, enabling the agency to deliver faster and more accurate forecasts straight to the public. This upgrade builds on several new tools that the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center (also housed within NOAA) launched last year. A new Storm Surge Watches and Warnings system as well as specialized flood maps quickly showed their value during Hurricane Harvey as it stalled for days over Houston, affecting millions. These maps helped emergency managers stage resources, establish evacuation areas and provide vital relief activities safely outside the flood zones.

Emergency managers can also combine NOAA’s data with population, business and housing data generated by the Census Bureau to understand the demographics of the areas hit hardest by the storms to ensure a more targeted response and recovery effort.

After hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico, local Census Bureau staff joined Federal Emergency Management Agency teams deployed to the island. These teams worked together to recruit and train temporary FEMA workers deployed throughout the battered island, among other projects. Stateside, Census Bureau staff provided FEMA with call-center support in English and Spanish for disaster survivors.

To help communities affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, wildfires, and other natural disasters last year, the EDA is delivering economic assistance to communities across the country. In April, EDA announced the availability of nearly $600 million in disaster funding to help the long-term economic recovery of cities and regions through a variety of projects in areas where a presidential declaration of a major disaster was issued. EDA’s disaster relief funds, combined with the $400 million of disaster relief allocated to NOAA for improvements in weather forecasting, support for cleanup efforts and other activities, puts the total contribution of the Department of Commerce to disaster relief at the billion-dollar mark.

Additional disaster assistance has come from NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, which awarded $6 million to manufacturing centers in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Puerto Rico to help them recover from damages inflicted by the hurricanes of 2017. The funds were used to help businesses that suffered physical damage to their facilities, labor shortages, and other hardships.

NIST was also active on the ground after the hurricanes passed. NIST’s Disaster and Failure Studies Program sent reconnaissance teams to assess the damage from Texas to Florida and Puerto Rico, studying storm damage and the performance of emergency management systems. The results of their analyses will help improve building standards and strengthen infrastructure in hurricane-prone areas.

Moreover, the Commerce Department is working to ensure that first responders have the broadband technology they need to even better protect and serve the public. The First Responder Network Authority, an entity within NTIA, is working to deploy a dedicated broadband network so that all police, fire and emergency medical service experts can communicate and collaborate wherever they are needed.

The Department of Commerce and agencies across the federal government are working together every day to warn, respond, and assist in recovery efforts when disaster strikes. The safety of American communities is our paramount concern, and Department of Commerce employees, from the forecasters at NOAA to the scientists at NIST, are working daily to protect the American public.