NewsNovember 16, 2012

Weather Service Halts Review of Its Work During Sandy

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

Just days after commissioning a review of its performance during Hurricane Sandy, the National Weather Service (NWS) abruptly disbanded the review team Thursday, saying that “a larger, multi-agency review of this event may take place” instead. The agency gave no time frame on when another review team might be put in place, or what other agencies might be involved in such a review.

NWS Acting Director Laura Furgione told Climate Central that the formation of the service assessment had been “premature” and that she had not seen or approved a charter governing the scope of the team's work. Furgione did not say who approved the initial decision. She said the NWS is committed to having a review, and is trying to speed up the review process.

View looking west along the New Jersey shore in Seaside Heights. Storm waves and surge destroyed the dunes and boardwalk, and deposited the sand on the island, covering roads. The red arrow points to a building that was washed off of its foundation and moved about a block away from its original location. The yellow arrow in each image points to the same feature.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: USGS.

Consistent with its tradition of evaluating its performance following major and deadly weather events, the NWS had put together a team of experts to conduct a service assessment of the agency’s performance in forecasting the storm and warning the public of its multiple hazards. In a first for the agency, the team was being co-led by someone outside of the agency, Mike Smith of the private weather forecasting firm AccuWeather. Smith has occasionally been critical of the NWS, including in the case of Sandy, although he has praised the agency for its accurate forecasts of the storm's path.

“I am writing to inform you that effective immediately we are terminating the spin-up of the National Weather Sandy Service Assessment Team,” a NOAA official told the team via email. “All plans and activities that have started should now cease.”

Smith said the team’s work had already begun, a budget had been approved, and he and other team members had already been working late into the night on the analysis. He said the assessment team intended to examine all angles of the event, including the question of why there were no hurricane warnings issued for New Jersey or New York. The storm decimated the New Jersey coastline and left 43 people dead in New York City alone, many from drowning due to the record storm surge flooding.

“We very quickly focused on the fact that you had a hurricane approaching the U.S. East Coast and no hurricane warnings,” Smith said in an interview.

Susan Buchanan, a Weather Service spokeswoman, said the agency is waiting to see if there is going to be a broader government review before proceeding with its own assessment. “If so, we would want to contribute to and benefit from a full federal collaboration on the overall service assessment. If a broader federal assessment does not move forward, the NWS will conduct an assessment of the agency’s performance as it routinely does,” she said in an email statement to Climate Central.

Service assessments are routine investigations that the NWS — which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — conducts after major storm events, from paralyzing blizzards to deadly hurricanes. Hurricane Sandy was an unusual event, though, because it presented unique forecasting and communications challenges. For example, the storm was transitioning from a tropical weather system to one that more closely resembled a nor'easter of the sort that frequent the Northeast during the fall and winter. The NWS declared the storm “post-tropical” shortly before landfall on Oct. 30, and it never issued hurricane warnings for the New Jersey coast or for New York City, among other areas, choosing instead to allow local NWS forecast offices to issue a multitude of other warnings, such as high-wind warnings.

That decision sparked intense opposition among some forecasters who said that hurricane warnings would have galvanized the public, along with political leaders, to undertake more significant preparations ahead of the storm.

However, it also provided a major benefit for property owners, since hurricane insurance deductibles typically are not triggered unless a hurricane warning is in effect or a named hurricane makes landfall. As Climate Central reported on Nov. 13, New York Senator Chuck Schumer has asked NOAA not to change the classification of Sandy to a hurricane due to its implications for millions of insurance policies.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, initially downplayed the storm’s destructive potential in a press conference two days before the storm, and waited until a day before the storm’s onset of heavy rains, strong winds, and a deadly storm surge to order the evacuation of low-lying parts of his city. Smith, among others, has speculated that if a hurricane warning had been issued for New York City, Bloomberg would have ordered evacuations earlier, and that may have saved lives.

The massive surface wind field of Hurricane Sandy as it approached the southern New Jersey coast. Tropical storm force winds are shaded in orange, while hurricane force winds are shaded in red.
Click to enlarge image. Credit: NOAA/NHC.

Presumably, one of the areas that Smith and the review panel would have explored is whether the storm classification would have affected Bloomberg's decisions, and those of other emergency management authorities in the affected region.

“Given the scores of deaths and the huge level of damage (according to media reports 100,000+ are still without power), even with excellent forecasts, the Sandy Assessment may have been the most important the National Weather Service has ever conducted. Now it has been stopped,” Smith wrote on his blog

According to Smith, the assessment team had been told they could not visit the National Hurricane Center in Miami as part of their investigation, which the team found bewildering, considering that Sandy was a hurricane during much of its trek up the East Coast.

“I think there was a level of discomfort at what we were starting to look into. Why there is that discomfort I don’t know, we hadn’t gotten very far,” Smith said. He called the assessment group, which was to be co-led by Nezette Rydell, the forecaster in charge of the NWS’ Denver office, “Very open-minded . . . but obviously when we were told we can’t go to the NHC, that raised several eyebrows.

“To have the plug pulled on them as soon as we started asking some interesting questions . . . it’s rather odd to me that the Weather Service would spin this thing up and, to use its word, terminate [it],” Smith said.