- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - A new federal center will help improve forecasts and emergency response during future water crises like the California drought and flooding in Texas, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said Tuesday.

Pritzker’s comments came during the unveiling of the National Water Center, built at the University of Alabama at a cost of nearly $24 million.

The 65,000-square-foot building includes an operations center with a large video screen that workers can use to zoom in on maps of areas being affected by floods or drought. That information can be combined with hydrological information, like rainfall totals, to predict trouble spots.

The center provides a single place for officials from different state, federal and local agencies to collaborate on water issues with university researchers and others, said Pritzker.

“This is the first time we’re able to bring all this data together at a granular, local level, street-by-street, house-by-house,” she said.

Officials said the information available at the center is so detailed it includes the location of mobile home parks, which are particularly susceptible to flood damage. Knowing those locations will allow emergency officials to predict areas that would need assistance, officials said.

“I think we can’t imagine what we will learn,” Pritzker said.

The administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Kathryn Sullivan, said the National Weather Service will use information from the center to provide new and better forecasts during events like the drought in California.

About 200 people will work at the center including employees of NOAA, other government agencies, contractors and visiting scientists.

The red-brick building was shepherded through Congress by Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, who cut the ribbon on the center. Construction began in 2012.

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