MIAMI -- It is hurricane season in the Atlantic, and for about 40 million residents of the U.S. east and gulf coasts, a warning to leave home and run for the hills will come from here.
But this year, forecasters worry whether they will be able to do the job adequately. "We're faced with catastrophic equipment failure, and no backup," said National Hurricane Center Director Robert C. Sheets.
The equipment Sheets is worried about is GOES-7, the only U.S. weather satellite now in orbit, and the single most important tool in detecting and tracking hurricanes. GOES-7 is running low on fuel and nearing the end of its five-year life expectancy.
"We're on borrowed time, and in a precarious situation right now," Sheets said.
So critical is the situation that last week a Senate subcommittee urged President Bush to declare a national emergency over the decrepit state of the nation's weather satellites, and then somehow come up with money to build new ones. But quick action is not expected.
Normally, the United States has two GOES satellites aloft. But one died after the 1988 season, and its replacement blew up in a botched launch. In a stop-gap measure, the United States earlier this year borrowed a backup satellite from Europe and shifted it westward to help cover the eastern Atlantic. But it is expected to die soon, too.
"Am I nervous about it?" Sheets said. "Sure."
Two new satellites are planned but federal officials now say they are so riddled with defects that they may never get off the ground.