As we mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, another tropical cyclone, Ernesto, twirls menacingly in the Caribbean. While this season has been tranquil compared to last year’s hyperactivity, government forecasters warn that seven to nine hurricanes could tear across the Atlantic through November 30; three to four could equal or exceed Category 3 strength.
“This year’s three named storms may pale in comparison to the record nine storms that formed through early August 2005, but conditions will be favorable for above-normal activity for the rest of this season — so we are not off the hook by any means,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Conrad Lautenbacher announced August 8. Indeed, since Lautenbacher’s statement, two more named systems, Debby and Ernesto, have been christened. And among the 28 cities University of Central Florida professor Mark Johnson analyzed in May, the likeliest to face a hurricane is none other than America’s battered jewel — New Orleans.
Peter Cordani ponders this with a grim sense of déjà vu. As America yet again stares down this cannon and watches its fuse burn, he wonders, “Why do we put up with this?” He explains, “We’re losing the battle against hurricanes. They are overtaking us. Half of Florida still has thousands of homes with blue-tarp roofs. There are Dumpsters everywhere. New Orleans is still in shambles.”
“Last year we got pummeled by four hurricanes,” Cordani adds. “It costs us billions to deal with this, so it’s worth a try to see if something could improve this situation.”
That “something” might be Dyn-O-Gel, an advanced polymer that Cordani’s company, Dyn-O-Mat, Inc., produces in Jupiter, Florida. Just as a similar substance makes diapers absorbent, Cordani hopes Dyn-O-Gel will decelerate or even derail hurricanes before they kill again.
Dyn-O-Gel swallows up to 1,500 times its weight in water. Cordani hopes to deploy aircraft to bombard incoming hurricanes with this substance. Chopping a slice from a swirling cyclone can cost it speed, momentum, and energy, and reduce its ferocity. On July 19, 2001, Cordani chartered a plane and released $40,000 worth of Dyn-O-Gel onto a thunderstorm east of Palm Beach. Local air-traffic controllers and a Miami TV station both said the storm clouds virtually vanished. They solidified, then plunged, and dissolved among the waves below. This powder “turns into a gel, like JELL-O, and harmlessly reliquifies when it hits salt water,” Cordani says.
Cordani’s idea could run into trouble given the cold water the White House poured on Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s legislation to support weather-modification research & development. In a December 13 letter to the Texas Republican, John H. Marburger III, director of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, raised several red flags related to this entire field of endeavor:
Given global weather patterns, whether one country “owns” its weather so as to assert intra-border control with extra-boarder consequences, must be considered under present international conventions…
In 1978, the United States became a party to an international treaty banning the use of weather modification for hostile purposes. While modification for peaceful purposes is allowed, whether well-intentioned programs could be considered “hostile” and perceived to violate this ban should be considered…
Redirecting funds to focus on weather modification can shift funds away from other important programs such as research to improve forecasting capabilities for severe weather events and research to better understand climate variability and change.
Some observers are more enthused about Dyn-O-Gel, however.
“I have heard of plans that sound far more ridiculous, such as pouring things on the ocean’s surface,” Weather Channel hurricane expert Steve Lyons says. “Dyn-O-Mat’s intent is reasonable. They are not attempting to kill a hurricane, which would be impossible. If you could just weaken it a little bit and make it just a category weaker, maybe there’s some hope there. As a scientist, I am skeptical. But I would like to consider myself an optimist rather than a pessimist. I say go for it, if you have the money to try it. I hope they’re successful.”
“I’ve seen nothing like this before,” says former FEMA administrator Michael Brown, now leader of his own consultancy. He visited Dyn-O-Mat on June 1 to consider possible joint ventures. “I think the potential is very intriguing,” he adds. “I think it deserves a further look.”
Brown believes that Dyn-O-Gel could have helped last August 29, as Hurricane Katrina sliced into the Gulf Coast.
“There’s no question that if this concept is able to be transformed into reality, where it really does what theoretically Peter thinks it can do,” Brown tells me, “it not only would have made my life easier, it will fundamentally change the way we look at some of these disasters.”
Brown favors federal research support in this area, albeit guardedly.
“I think the government ought to look very strongly at providing some resources,” Brown says. “On the other hand, I think Peter has to be cautious in accepting government resources because often times they come with strings or they come with some restrictions. So he has to make certain that any government resources he receives do not impede the actual movement of the project down the road.”
Cordani seeks between $50 million and $100 million over three years to sic Dyn-O-Gel on incoming storms and scientifically evaluate the results. He has no desire, however, to surrender his company to venture capitalists, who, he says, demand full control in exchange for funding. Insurers, who Cordani could save billions in claims, should wire Dyn-O-Mat millions — today. Though asked, none has.
To preclude another $88.8 billion in hurricane relief, as it already has spent since Katrina, Congress should authorize up to $100 million over three years for hurricane-modification research, including Dyn-O-Mat’s plan. It should finance this by junking a $700 million earmark to reroute publicly a Mississippi railroad that CSX Corp. rebuilt privately for $250 million after Katrina. Mississippi’s GOP senators, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, hope to replace this railway with a road to link Gulf Coast casinos and condos. Taxpayers would save $600 million on this tomfoolery while devoting $100 million to investigate whether Dyn-O-Mat can deliver on its cost-cutting, property-protecting, life-saving potential.
This comparatively modest sum could advance America’s general welfare far more than pointless bridges, the Senator Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center, or any of the 13,997 pork barrel projects that Citizens Against Government Waste calculates cost taxpayers $27.3 billion last fiscal year alone.
At least Cordani focuses on the big picture. His office walls feature dozens of newspaper banners from the 2005 hurricane season. Remembering last year’s pandemonium keeps him motivated.
“New Orleans emptying,” a headline reads. “DEVASTATED,” screams another. “Only dead remain,” mourns one more.
“This gives me my energy,” Cordani says. “This gives me my drive, when I see what these people have gone through.”
Perhaps, some day soon, Peter Cordani will affix happier headlines to his wall. Why not this one? “High-tech powder tames hurricane. Thousands spared.”
– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.