The National Weather Service's Current System Outage and Why We Need a Natural Disaster Review Board

Joplin, after the tornado

We all remember the 2011 catastrophic Joplin Tornado and the loss of 161 lives — by far the worst single tornado disaster since the civilian tornado warning program began 1957. From 2000 to 2011, the National Weather Service (NWS) was making tremendous progress in warning of tornadoes. Tragically, the NWS and local emergency management during the hour before the tornado arrived did just about everything wrong

Prior to Joplin, the NWS, on average, provided 13.3 minutes of advance notice and correctly warned of tornadoes 73.3% of the time. In 2007, they reached a superb 78% of the time. 

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the tornado warning program has suffered serious deterioration since 2011. The NWS’s most recent figures reveal they correctly warn of tornadoes just 57% of the time (a 27% reduction) and, when a warning has been provided, it has dropped to 8 minutes of advance notice (a 40% reduction). NOAA has set a target of 72% of tornadoes to be warned of in advance. That target has not been attained -- even once -- since 2012 after being routinely attained from 2006 to 2011.

Hurricane Ian, 2022

If that was the only issue with the National Weather Service, while serious, it would be one thing. But, there are many other issues. 2022’s Category 4 Hurricane Ian saw the worst quality major hurricane forecast in decades. It was so bad that many Floridians were caught by surprise. The death toll was 161 (same as Joplin’s). 

Simultaneously, the NWS’s infrastructure deteriorates rapidly. 
During the March 5, 2022, Iowa tornado outbreak (which included an EF-4 intensity tornado that killed six), the NWS’s network went down. Even though the tornadoes were in Iowa, a network failure in Texas crashed the entire system. 

Last week, this was the headline:
On top of that, we learned last week, the NWS cannot pay its bills!

Unfortunately, this week, things have only gone from bad to worse. I will allow the College of DuPage’s Meteorology Department explain the cause of the ongoing “nightmare.”
Since Sunday Night:
  • NWS lost 80% of their radars Monday morning. 
  • 100% of their satellite network went down as severe thunderstorms were developing in the Great Plains late Monday morning and into the afternoon.
  • Their rainfall amount forecast, important to farmers and river interests, hasn’t been updated in 59 hours. They missed the last update cycle eight hours ago. This product is extensively used by farmers, the agricultural industry, and river interests. 
  • Their rotation (tornadoes) and hail size products have been down since Sunday night. 
  • Numerous other products currently are unavailable. 


Tuesday morning, the NWS completely failed to warn of en EF-2 (“strong” per their rating scale) tornado in Greenwood County, Kansas. This was not due to the network issue, but it is related to the NWS turning down Congress’ offer to fund gap-filler radars. The on-going problems with the tornado warning system are a public safety threat to all Americans. 

Since the 2012 Hurricane Sandy fiasco, involving the National Weather Service, FEMA and other agencies, I have been urging Congress to create an independent Natural Disaster Review Board (NDRB) that would be modeled after the hugely successful National Transportation Safety Board. There are bills before both houses of Congress to do just that. The proposed bills, while good, need a few amendments. So, I’d like to suggest the House and Senate hold hearings as soon as possible and then send the legislation to President Biden for his signature. 

The catastrophic 2023 Maui Wildfire demonstrates that increasing population makes disasters potentially more deadly. A similar wildfire to Maui’s occurred in Boulder, Colorado, 19 months prior. Because we have no mechanisms for disaster-related knowledge and best practices to be quickly disseminated, some of the same dangerous mistakes that were made in Boulder were also made on Maui -- accounting for the horrific loss of life (101). The Maui fire report, issued yesterday by Hawaii’s attorney general, is factually incorrect in blaming the winds of Hurricane Dora for the fire (see report from Professor of Meteorology Dr. Cliff Mass).

As far as I can determine, no meteorologist was involved in the Hawaii AG’s report. This is the danger of not using a holistic approach to disasters that a Natural Disaster Review Board would bring. Because of the lack of meteorological expertise, the disaster community is in danger of learning the wrong thing (e.g., “we don’t have hurricanes so a fire like Maui's can’t happen here”).

Other nations like Great Britain already have a NDRB. I'm a political conservative who dislikes enlarging our government. But, the United States desperately needs a National Disaster Review Board. If you agree, please use their web sites and contact your congresspeople. 

© 2024, Mike Smith Enterprises, LLC

1:42p Thursday: progress is being made. We finally got a new precipitation amount forecast. It is here.


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