Nov 17 2006

NOAA center good fit for Mobile's museum

Mobile Press Register


THE FATE of one small item on the crowded post-election agenda of Congress holds particular interest for Mobile.

It's peanuts in the context of a $2.7 trillion federal budget, but the $20 million that Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby has set aside for a disaster response center on the Mobile waterfront would boost downtown redevelopment and help the maritime industry on the Gulf Coast.

Last summer Sen. Shelby inserted funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration disaster response center in a spending bill that was approved by a Senate committee. The funding for the project still needs the approval of the full Senate and the House.

Mobile leaders were delighted to learn the center would be housed in the planned National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico, the splendid $30 million facility that will crown the city's waterfront development project.

Key parts of NOAA's mission dovetail with the themes of the maritime museum, which is scheduled to open in 2008.

The federal agency deals with a variety of maritime issues, including navigation, fisheries management and coastal research. Local officials have noted that NOAA collaborates with a science center located at the National Maritime Museum in Norfolk, Va. They hope the agency can provide similar support for the Gulf Coast museum.

From a practical standpoint, putting a NOAA office in downtown Mobile would position the agency to respond quickly to navigation problems caused by damaging storms in the Gulf.

Critics of Sen. Shelby's plan have raised concerns about flooding along the riverfront in the event of a major hurricane. But the museum should be well-protected from storms, given that the first floor will sit several feet above a worst-case storm surge for a Category 3 hurricane.

Also, history shows that if the facility were temporarily cut off by flood waters, the disruption likely wouldn't last for more than 12 hours. This shouldn't interfere with NOAA's post-hurricane tasks.

In our view, the NOAA office is well-suited for the Mobile waterfront, and the project deserves full funding.

It looks more and more likely that Congress will postpone at least some of these key budget decisions until lawmakers return in January.

This could be bad news for Mobile and the NOAA center. Congress will be under new ownership, so to speak, in January, when Democrats assume the powers of the majority.

With the GOP in charge, Sen. Shelby and Sen. Jeff Sessions, the state's other U.S. senator, have wielded considerable clout. Their influence inevitably will be diminished under a Democratic majority.

With that in mind, Mobilians have added reason to hope GOP leaders will finish their work on the budget before the post-election session ends sometime next month.