NewsDecember 11, 2012

NOAA Forms Hurricane Sandy Review Team, Again

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the formation of an interagency review team to study the National Weather Service’s (NWS) performance leading up to and during Hurricane Sandy. According to a statement from David Titley, the NOAA deputy undersecretary for operations, the team will be led by a scientist with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and will include two social scientists and 10 experts from NWS, FEMA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, none of whom helped forecast the course of the deadly storm.

View from a security camera of water rushing into the Hoboken PATH rail station via an elevator shaft, as Hurricane Sandy's storm surge inundated that location on Oct. 29, 2012.
Credit: New York Port Authority.

This is the second time in as many months that the agency has organized a Hurricane Sandy review team. The last one was abruptly terminated in mid-November, just one week after beginning its work.

The NWS gave different accounts for why the initial review was scuttled, first saying that it had never been formally approved at the highest levels of the agency, and then citing compliance problems with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, which sets rules regarding the participation on such panels of non-federal employees.

The initial team was to be headed by a weather expert from outside the agency, Mike Smith of the private sector forecasting firm AccuWeather, but the new team features only federal government experts. However, the team will be consulting outside partners, such as the emergency management community, about the Weather Service's performance.

Smith said the composition of the panel calls its work into question. “The idea that all government employees allows for an “impartial and unbiased” review is ridiculous. All will have the perspective of government employees. There is nothing wrong with that provided it is complemented by “outside the box” thinking that non-government employees can provide. This especially true since many of the members of the team depend on NOAA for a paycheck,” he wrote on his blog.

Smith also criticized NOAA for selecting a fisheries agency employee to lead the review of a major weather event. “The major issues surrounding Sandy are meteorological. It is disappointing that the head of the assessment will not have a meteorological background and, perhaps, not know which rocks to turn over.”

Hurricane Sandy presented the NWS with a set of unprecedented challenges, since it was a hurricane that also took on characteristics more closely associated with cold season storms as it roared up the heavily populated eastern seaboard. NWS opted not to issue hurricane warnings for any locations north of North Carolina, despite the fact that many coastal locations experienced hurricane force winds of greater than 74 mph while the storm was officially classified as a hurricane.

The decision not to issue such warnings was made in order to avoid having to drop the warnings if the storm completed its transition to a hybrid, or post-tropical, cyclone, according to Rick Knabb, the director of the National Hurricane Center.

Satellite image of Hurricane Sandy as the storm began its turn to the west toward landfall in southern New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012.
Click to enlarge the image.
Credit: NOAA.

Many prominent meteorologists, including on-air experts at The Weather Channel, have criticized this decision, noting that hurricane warnings might have saved lives by spurring people to action, instead of the “high wind warnings” and other advisories that local NWS offices issued, which can be more difficult to interpret. Specifically, the lack of a hurricane warning seemed to influence New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to downplay the storm during a news conference and not to order the evacuation of low-lying portions of the city until just 24-hours remained before the storms arrival.

“It was the worst communication debacle that I can remember from the National Weather Service,” wrote Weather Channel meteorologist Bryan Norcross on his blog, referring to the lack of hurricane warnings.

The decision not to issue hurricane warnings for New York and New Jersey is among the issues the review committee will look into, said NWS spokesman Chris Vaccaro.

The NWS is in the process of revising its storm warning policies to give it added flexibility should it ever face a massive, transitioning storm such as Sandy again, although this too has been shrouded in some mystery, after a senior forecaster at the Hurricane Center told AccuWeather that such a change had already been agreed to, but NOAA headquarters described it as a draft proposal.

According to Titley, the team of 12 experts chosen to be on the review team did not forecast Sandy. “This allows for an impartial and unbiased review,” he said.

“The team will focus on three main areas: the philosophies and policies behind the forecast and the weather watch and warning products and how they are communicated; how storm surge products are produced and issued from multiple NOAA Line Offices; and the web presence as a tool for communicating with the public.”

The team will start its work this month, with an interim report due to NOAA leadership in the spring. The agency hopes to implement some of the necessary policy changes before the start of the 2013 hurricane season on June 1.

“I look forward to the findings and any recommended ways the National Weather Service can do an even better job to protect life and property through timely and accurate forecasts,” Titley said.

Hurricane Sandy caused at least $100 billion in damage, and killed at least 125 people in the U.S., many of them from the storm's powerful storm surge that destroyed low-lying areas of New Jersey, New York, and other states.

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