Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Weather Channel's Bryan Norcross on the Hurricane Sandy Mess

As you know, I was to co-chair the official assessment of the National Weather Service's performance during Hurricane Sandy. That assessment was terminated in an unprecedented manner by the NWS about a week after it began. A couple of items on that topic were brought to my attention today and I wanted to present them to you.

The first is from The Weather Channel's hurricane expert, Bryan Norcross:

There's no doubt in my mind that Mike Smith and the National Weather Service team would have made a detailed and accurate assessment of the questionable decisions - which I and others have roundly criticized - involving NHC advisories and the bulletins issued by local offices within the NWS's Eastern Region. But the fact is, the communications problems in Sandy reached to New York City, Trenton, Albany, and beyond. 

Hopefully the rethinking of the process will mean a more extensive and far-reaching analysis so we can fully learn the lessons from Sandy... as opposed to obscuring the lessons in a cloud of finger-pointing. We'll see.

It's natural to focus on New York City because the organizations that handle emergencies there - from the Mayor's office to emergency management - are, in general, the biggest and best at what they do. But CLEARLY there was a breakdown. Sandy's storm-surge was accurately forecast to inundate the low-lying parts of the region. Somehow, as good as they are, the emergency planning and communications team in New York City did not seem to understand or plan for this scenario. 

It's important for the city to learn what went wrong, but it's equally important for other emergency planners to learn as well. It will be difficult for the professional and dedicated people in New York to subject their decision-making processes to the kind of examination that should be undertaken, but it should be undertaken just the same.

Two facts highlight the problem. On Saturday, October 27th, the First Selectman of Fairfield, CT, Michael Tetreau, announced an evacuation order to be completed by 11 PM that Sunday, saying they "could see flooding that exceeds the damage from the 1938 hurricane". Yet the message from Mayor Bloomberg that same day carried nothing like that urgency. 

Also, we now know that an untold number of New York City firefighters and policemen stayed in their homes near the water, only to end up leaving in the middle of the storm in a nightmare evacuation... lashing family members together to hang on through the raging water. These are people that understand that really bad crap happens in the world. You'd think that an NYC firefighter, if anybody, would have taken action to protect his family if he understood that the ocean was going to come surging through the house. That was exactly the forecast, but that, obviously, did not come through in the messaging.

For the rest, just click here. Bryan makes the same point I have made over and over: The forecasts were  excellent. But, the threat messaging was poor.

The Weather Channel also has a video that you can view by clicking here. It features the National Hurricane Center's director, Rick Knabb, offering a rather odd defense of their "we're not going to issue a hurricane warning with a hurricane bearing down on the coast" policy which is, "what if, in the middle of the event, the warnings had come down (i.e., been terminated)?" That is possible in any hurricane if the storm weakens unexpectedly which was certainly not the case with Sandy.

What Knabb is really getting at is the technicality that -- according to a decision apparently made by the NWS on Friday (landfall was Monday evening) -- the storm would transition from "warm core" (aloft) to "cold core"before coming ashore -- a distinction without a difference to anyone but meteorologists. I wrote about the danger of meteorologists getting caught up in technicalities on this blog at 5:41pm Thursday, October, 25:
In the video, you saw Rick sticking to the story that Sandy made a transition to cold core one hour off the coast making "hurricane" warnings technically unnecessary even though there were hurricane-force winds and, in many areas, a hurricane storm surge that reached the levels expected with a Category 2 hurricane. The Weather Channel's Stu Ostro seems to agree with me and with independent hurricane meteorologists that, at this point, there is little scientific support for NHC's position.
National Hurricane Center map showing Sandy to be a
hurricane (red line) until it crossed the coast.
The bottom line based on the evidence so far available: Hurricane warnings should have been issued for Sandy.

It is a shame that the Sandy Assessment team was not allowed to do its work. We had an excellent team that would have answered these questions, and many more, in a fair and authoritative manner. Now, with each passing day, the scientific trail gets colder and accurate answers more difficult to obtain. Memories fade. Records are lost. People move away. High water marks are destroyed as recovery proceeds. It will be much more difficult, if the NWS or a multi-agency review actually occurs, for them to establish what went right and what went wrong.


  1. Mike,

    If you can't join 'em, beat 'em ... maybe this could be the topic of your next book?


  2. Elaine,

    Easily, two dozen (likely more, I haven't been keeping track) have suggested I write a book about Sandy. I admit I'm in a unique position to do so and I appreciate the vote of confidence from a reader.

    That said, I question whether there is a real market for it. Like my other two books, it would be science-based rather than sensationalized. They have not sold as well as I would have liked (although certainly not failures). So, I'm thinking about it but am a long way from making an affirmative decision.


  3. Well Mike, if you do publish a "Sandy book", I for one will read it!


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