Thursday, November 15, 2012

NWS "Postpones" Its Assessment of Hurricane Sandy: Politics, Red Tape or All of the Above?

The weather faction of the social media world went abuzz today when it was announced that the team charged with examining the National Weather Service's (NWS) performance during Hurricane Sandy was told that the project was "terminated, effective immediately..."

In a post on his blog, Mike Smith (the co-chair of the team) said that he received an e-mail from NWS Headquarters this morning stating that the assessment team had been terminated "effective immediately":

Smith went on to say that the e-mail suggested that a "larger, multi-agency review of this event may take place...", however no details were immediately provided.

I sent an e-mail to NOAA Public Affairs, seeking an "official statement" and/or news release concerning the situation, and received the following reply:

The NWS's reply naturally begged a follow-up question regarding the expected timeline and what agencies would be involved in a "broader federal assessment of the government's preparation and response to Sandy", to which I received this reply: 

I find it very hard to believe that a "multi-agency" assessment of the handling of Sandy by the federal government would be complete in as little as 6 months - especially when they haven't even decided who will be participating in that assessment.

For the record and before I go further, the original subject line of my e-mails to the NWS read "Hurricane Sandy Assessment Team", as shown below:

Referring back to the replies from the NWS, you can see that they deleted the reference to "hurricane" and retyped the subject line as simply "Sandy assessment".  Why that may be important will be addressed shortly...

So, what's the big deal with the assessment being cancelled, (or postponed as indicated in the NWS's 2nd response) you ask?  Well, there are several issues at play here, many of which revolve around politics, I believe.

Myself and several others in the meteorological community believe that a significant portion of the Hurricane Sandy event was mishandled insofar as the technical classification and resulting weather warnings (or lack thereof) were concerned leading up to the landfall of the system.

Over the weekend prior to Sandy's landfall, the NWS's National Hurricane Center (NHC) stated that Hurricane and/or Tropical Storm Warnings would not be extended Northward along the U.S. coast beyond North Carolina because of their belief that Sandy would become "extra-tropical" (in other words, not a warm core, tropical system) before making landfall.  As a result of that decision, they passed the responsibility of issuing watch and warning products (of a non-tropical nature) to the local NWS offices in the path of the system.

I have maintained all along that this was a tragic mistake.  I firmly believe that this decision is what lead, at least in part, to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg waiting too long to order an evacuation of the areas at greatest risk.  In a press conference held on the Saturday (2 days) before the storm hit, the mayor practically blew-off the situation, saying, in part, that it would not be as bad as Irene was last year and that folks should go on about their business as they normally would:

Like it or not, we live in an always on, always connected society.  When a highly visible public official makes a dangerously uninformed statement such as the one in the video above (regardless of the original source or reasoning), the results can be devastating, and I believe that is exactly what took place in the case of Sandy.

Some in the meteorological community contend that arguing whether or not Sandy was a hurricane as it approached and made landfall is purely a futile exhibition of "semantics".  I disagree.  First, I am of the opinion that Sandy was a warm core, tropical system (and specifically, a hurricane) as the center approached the New Jersey coast.  Second, whether we like it or not, psychology and, yes, semantics, play an extremely important role insofar as how seriously the "public at large" will react to an approaching severe weather situation.  

Instead of having Hurricane Warnings in place along the coast well in advance for the impacted areas, we were given the relatively sporadic issuance of a combination of high wind watches or warnings and coastal flood watches or warnings, among a myriad of other advisory products.  To add further complexity to the situation, instead of having one national center (like the NHC) issuing the advisories, we were sprung into a situation where numerous local offices were expected to coordinate the effort, which is impractical to say the least in a situation such as this.

Flooded Underpass in Battery Park (The Atlantic)

Make no mistake, I'm not saying that Sandy was "unexpected" or poorly forecast (although some outlets did call for the system to move out to sea and away from the area for several days before they finally reversed course).   In general, this was a well forecast event.  This very blog started talking about the likely impact of this system on the Northeast over 1 week in advance of its impact.  With that said, in my opinion, the fact that a formal Hurricane Warning was never issued for the coasts of New York or New Jersey resulted in some people taking the situation less seriously and failing to act as they otherwise might have.

Ambulances line up at NYU Medical Center
to Remove Patients After Power Failed (AP)

All of this brings us back to the sudden cancellation or "postponement" of the NWS's service assessment today.  Are there folks in the local, state and even the federal government that are afraid of what the full truth of this matter may reveal?  Sure there are.  After all, re-elections are at stake here.  Is that the reason that the assessment was "terminated" (or postponed as it was described in the 2nd e-mail reply that I received today), or is this just another example of government red tape run amok?  We may never know, but we're certainly entitled to our opinion on the matter.

Will we ever have an objective assessment of the handling of Hurricane Sandy presented for review?  I honestly don't know.  I do, however, believe that a lot more people will pay a lot more attention to the next tropical system to affect this area next year and in the years to come.  Its just unfortunate that this lesson had to come at such an extremely high cost - and I'm not just talking dollars - I'm talking about the lives that were forever lost and those that were (and continue to be) severely disrupted.

They deserve better next time.

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Rob White said...

Blog reader "Mark from Ohio" attempted to leave the following comment but the Blogger comment application wouldn't accept it. I apologize and am looking into this problem and hope to have it resolved ASAP (it's not me - it appears to be a problem with Google's Blogger application).

Mark's e-mail question/comment read:

"What I'm wondering is how the official storm classification (superstorm vs. hurricane) affect insurance payments to those affected by the storm?


I replied back that I am actually working on a full blog post regarding the insurance aspect of this, and will have it posted on the blog later today.

The short answer is this: classification does impact wind payments, but not flood payments in most cases. I'll provide greater detail and some numbers in the actual post later today.

If you have a comment or question and are unable to post it here due to Blogger technical problems, please feel free to e-mail me at the contact link on the "About Me" section of the blog homepage.

Disaster Insurance said...

it was terrible and horrible fact in history of America, Disaster insurance claims to rescue homeowners from hurricane "Sandy"