That, in turn, could close what some have called an embarrassing gap between the primary U.S. and European computer models. The European model has generally been more adept at forecasting the paths and intensities of major storms, and that pattern held in October when the it projected the lethal westward turn by Sandy even as the early U.S. model showed it drifting to the east harmlessly, toward open ocean.
Beyond getting better at forecasts, government officials want to improve their communication skills. Last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an after-action “service assessment” on Sandy that gave the National Weather Service a mixed review.
The report praises the NWS for its forecasts, noting that many days in advance the government warned decision makers that they were facing an extremely dangerous storm that carried with it the potential for lethal storm surges. But the report concluded that the Weather Service was not always clear in its messages, and that the best information was often hard to root out on the NWS Web site. A recurring complaint heard by the report’s authors: “Too many clicks” were necessary to find out what was going on.
The result was, for many people, confusion. Many inhabitants of the East Coast were concerned about where the storm would make landfall but did not fully grasp how widespread the destruction would be and how vulnerable they could be from the storm surge. Of the 147 people killed by Sandy, 49 drowned.
The storm came ashore near Brigantine, N.J., early in the evening of Oct. 29. But this was a monstrously vast weather event, with tropical-storm-force winds 1,000 miles across. The effects were felt as far away as Wisconsin.
Sandy was dubbed a “superstorm” because the tropical cyclone collided with an intense low-pressure system rolling in from the west. That led to multiple feet of snow in the Appalachian Mountains. Sandy knocked out power to 8.5 million people, including most of Lower Manhattan.
A good forecast is only a good forecast if it’s communicated well and leads to good decisions by public officials and the general populace. That’s the common thread linking most of the 23 recommendations of the NWS assessment.
The report recommends that the NWS develop “explicit storm surge graphics and high-resolution mapping tools” that better illustrate the storm surge threat.