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When Hurricanes Strike: Interagency Requirements for Agricultural Assessments

Brad Rippey brippey@oce.usda.gov

U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of the Chief Economist World Agricultural Outlook Board 1400 Independence Avenue, SW Washington, DC 20250-3800

Where we once plotted hurricane positions by hand and used transparencies to overlay storm tracks and agricultural production areas, we now use layers in a geographic information system (GIS). High-level government officials, including the Secretary of Agriculture, are becoming accustomed to high-tech, rapid-response reports and graphics provided by USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist (OCE), based on multi-layered data sets obtained from various agencies.

USDA/OCE provides the Secretary of Agriculture and top staff members with GIS-based products both before and after a storm’s U.S. strike. Pre-landfall reports typically include a USDA county-level crop production map for one or more commodities (e.g. cotton, sugarcane) overlaid with storm track and intensity forecasts provided by the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Post-storm products provide pertinent agricultural and meteorological information, although content varies. For example, Hurricane Ophelia’s (September 14-16, 2005) threat to open-boll cotton in eastern North Carolina included heavy rain, while Hurricane Wilma’s (October 24, 2005) destruction of citrus, sugarcane, and farm infrastructure in southern Florida was solely due to high winds.

In the future, USDA hopes to continue utilizing NHC’s products to provide detailed, high-quality agricultural impact graphics. USDA operationally uses several NHC products—including observed and forecast storm tracks, and tropical storm- and hurricane-force wind swaths— although none is yet publicly released in shapefile (GIS) format. The process of converting NHC’s public files into GIS layers remains time-consuming and effectively a hand-drawn process, which can introduce errors. In addition, non-operational NHC products that would be useful for USDA’s agricultural assessments include text reports of storm-total rainfall, maximum sustained winds, and peak wind gusts. If all of NHC’s data sets were publicly released as shapefiles (for graphics) and in comma-delimited format (for text), USDA and other federal entities could provide high-level officials with even more timely, consistent, and accurate information.

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