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Posted at 10:43 AM ET, 12/03/2012

The controversial National Weather Service Sandy assessment: inside the story

For the last few weeks Eric Holthaus and I have been tracking and writing about the National Weather Service’s review of its performance during Hurricane Sandy.

NWS had started an assessment process to be co-led by AccuWeather senior vice president Mike Smith, who had been critical of how NWS communicated warning information during Sandy, but abruptly stopped it and decided instead to do an assessment led by only government officials.

Today we have a story on the Post’s Federal page, which lays out the various issues and describes why it has become controversial. Here’s how it opens:

Hurricane Sandy’s powerful winds are still wreaking havoc, this time at the National Weather Service as it tries to quell controversy over a recent decision to shut down a post-storm assessment team...

There is some material that didn’t make it into the Federal page story that is worth sharing.

Aside from the issue of whether NWS should’ve issued hurricane warnings for Sandy (which the article examines), a key reason this has become a story is that the broader meteorological community has for a long time been pushing NWS to include outside voices in their post storm evaluations or even have the reviews done 100 percent independently.

A 2012 National Academy of Sciences report titled “Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None”recommends NWS “should consider whether having an independent entity conduct all post-event evaluations of performance ... would be more effective.”

Nate Johnson, a broadcast meteorologist in Raleigh, North Carolina, who serves on the American Meteorological Society Board on Societal Impacts, published a blog post arguing NWS had been moving in the right direction. His view is that halting the Smith-led assessment in favor of an assessment with only federal team members is a step back.

That view is shared by Congressman Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-Ga.) - whose full statement on the NWS about-face is provided towards the bottom of this post.

A close read of our coverage reveals NWS gave essentially three reasons for halting the Smith-led assessment:

1) It was put together prematurely and was not vetted up the NWS chain and approved at the highest level

2) NWS leadership had spoken to the Department of Homeland Security about conducting a “broader federal assessment”

3) Legal concerns emerged about non-government participation in a Federal assessments with respect to compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

In its statement released Sunday, the NWS stresses it is committed to including outside perspectives but needs to get its in-house procedures in order first. (See its full statement below).

A lack of congruity in NWS’ in-house procedures seems to be a common thread throughout this controversy, although the irony is that strict adherence to process - NWS’ insistence it could not issue hurricane warnings for a “post-tropical cyclone” - is what precipitated it.

Related links:

Behind a Call That Kept Nursing Home Patients in Storm’s Path (NY Times)

Time to Fix Emergency Communications (Bryan Norcross)

Department of Homeland Security may review Superstorm Sandy warnings

NOAA to proceed with Superstorm Sandy review with other government agencies

Here is Congressman Broun’s statement on the Sandy assessment in full:

“I am disappointed, but not surprised, to hear that the government’s new assessment of Hurricane Sandy will not include anyone from the private sector, whose expertise would lend a great deal of credibility and substance to the review.

“Is it possible the National Weather Service (NWS) found questions posed by the private sector individuals in the first panel too uncomfortable to answer? I worry that the lack of independent voices on this panel will ultimately result in a white-washed report, lacking any depth or substance that would make the final product useful.

“While I welcome a broad multi-agency review, I fear that many of the highly-technical, scientific, weather-related questions will not be given the necessary scrutiny they deserve in a broader review. There is no reason why the NWS cannot conduct its own assessment, in keeping with past precedent, and have that inform a broader review.

“Serious questions remain about how the dangers of Sandy were considered and communicated. The American people deserve more than a rubber-stamped self-assessment. All of this is speculation, however, as Dr. Lubchenco has not responded to the letter I sent on November 20, 2012. Instead, Congress is left to interpret vague and terse statements by NOAA press staff.”

Here is the NWS statement on the Sandy assessment in full:

National Weather Service (NWS) service assessment teams have included external participants for some years. This is the right thing to do because it brings important, relevant expertise to bear that NWS does not have, or has in only very limited ways – notably social science skills. It also helps assure external parties that the assessment itself is conducted without bias or intent to hide any NWS shortcomings that might be discovered.

Unfortunately, this practice has not been done in ways that comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). We discovered this through the following manner:

* During development of the initial Sandy assessment team, previous practices were followed, including identifying outside non-federal participants for the assessment team and asking their willingness to serve on the team.

* While the draft assessment charter was being reviewed by NWS leadership, the proposed team began organizing and held preliminary conference calls to discuss logistics.

* Unfortunately, at least one team member was unaware that the charter was still draft and preliminary, and made their invitation public. This apparently gave some in the public the impression that the proposed team had been officially chartered to carry out the assessment, when in fact the charter was not yet approved and signed.

* While reviewing the draft charter, NWS leadership flagged two concerns and asked program staff to dissolve the proposed team until these issues could be fully explored and resolved. These concerns were:

1. NOAA and NWS interest in the potential for assessing Sandy through broader federal collaboration, which would include at minimum inviting participation from other NOAA line offices and other government agencies to serve on the NWS assessment team.

2. For the first time ever, the draft charter proposed a co-lead from outside the government. This proposal led to questions regarding FACA compliance, and ultimately to a review by counsel and policy officials who determined that including non-federal participants on our service assessment teams did not comply with FACA.

While the attorneys were reviewing the FACA issue, the media began inquiring about why the team was dissolved. In an effort to be as transparent as possible with known facts, our answers to the media focused on the first issue (i.e., the potential for broader federal collaboration) until we could receive more detailed guidance from the NOAA attorneys about the FACA issue.

FACA can be complex, but in general terms it requires that consensus advice from a group that includes non-federal participants be conducted under a specific set of rules and authorities by a “registered” Federal Advisory Committee.

Per guidance from our attorneys, NOAA must comply with FACA, leaving us to conduct a Sandy assessment using only federal team members. The assessment team will conduct interviews and collect information from a broad range of external parties, in compliance with FACA.

By the start of next hurricane season on June 1, NOAA will have time to address non-federal participation in service assessments, as well as the recommendation from the Academy of Science that such surveys should be conducted by an independent external group, in a more comprehensive and orderly fashion.

NOAA is working on a response to the committee’s letter and will meet their Dec. 14 deadline for a response.

By  |  10:43 AM ET, 12/03/2012

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