Weather Service draws fire for halting Sandy review panel; agency cites regulations

December 3, 2012

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 led by a private-sector meteorologist and vocal critic who was among those questioning how the agency communicated its forecasts to the public.

The agency’s Sandy forecasts were widely praised for their accuracy, but the agency has been challenged on why it never issued standard hurricane watches and warnings, opting instead for non-tropical “high wind warnings,” “coastal flood warnings” and other advisories. That decision may have caused some to take the storm less seriously, critics said.

The issue intensified in Washington recently — complete with a pointed letter from a lawmaker — when the agency halted an assessment team co-chaired by one of those Weather Service critics, Mike Smith, a senior vice president at the private meteorology firm Accu­Weather.

The Weather Service routinely sets up post-storm assessment teams, and in recent years has increasingly included non-government experts. Smith’s selection was significant because of his criticism and because he was the first member of the private sector that the agency has appointed to lead a team.

But on Nov. 15, the Weather Service abruptly stopped the team, saying the panel was moving prematurely and that there was the possibility of a “broader federal assessment” with other agencies.

Within days, Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s subcommittee on investigations and oversight, wrote to Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about the decision and his concern that further delays may affect time-sensitive data collection.

“With each passing day, the next Service Assessment team may experience increased challenges in collecting the information it needs for a comprehensive report,” he wrote.

He also questioned whether the new assessment would include outside experts.

On Thursday, the Weather Service announced it had a new team from NOAA that was open to the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies but would not include non-government experts.

“While working on the initial draft Sandy assessment team charter — which would have included a non-federal co-chair for the first time — it was determined that this [co-chair] would require NOAA to comply with Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), significantly delaying the start of the assessment,” Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said.

On Sunday, NOAA issued a statement underscoring the FACA compliance issue, adding that “by the start of next hurricane season on June 1, NOAA will have time to address non-federal participation in service assessments . . . in a more comprehensive and orderly fashion.”

Outside experts will still have a role in the NOAA assessment, Buchanan said, because conclusions “will be based in large part on input and information from external partners and stakeholders, such as emergency management officials and broadcast meteorologists.”

Did the Weather Service effectively communicate Sandy’s threat?

Because Sandy was merging with a mid-latitude weather front as it approached the coast, the Weather Service forecast the storm to transition from a hurricane into a “post-tropical cyclone.” The meteorological technicality convinced Weather Service leadership that hurricane watches and warnings should not be issued.

“We have to be credible in what we are sending out in terms of our products and warnings,” National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb told the Weather Channel on Tuesday.

Bryan Norcross, the Weather Channel’s hurricane expert, said the hurricane center’s adherence to “arcane and inflexible rules” compromised communication.

“When all hell is breaking loose, sometimes you’ve got to break a few rules to do the right thing,” he blogged after the decision.

Smith said, “People — including Mayor Bloomberg — were misled by the NWS’s, in my opinion, highly unfortunate decision not to issue a hurricane warning, into thinking the threat had lessened when it actually increased.”

Two days before Sandy hit, while noting the serious danger, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) played down the chances of sudden water surges, “which is what you would expect with a hurricane, and which we saw with Irene 14 months ago. So it will be less dangerous.”

He pivoted quickly after the Weather Service updated its report on potential sudden water surges.

According to New York City statistics, about 6,100 people used emergency shelters in the run-up to Sandy, compared with 9,600 for Hurricane Irene. Both storms prompted mandatory evacuation of the same low-lying areas, totaling about 375,000 people, though Sandy caused more extensive damage to the city.

The national death toll for the storm hit 125, and cleanup estimates in New York and New Jersey alone are in the billions of dollars.

Knabb said that closely following procedure may have caused confusing messages.

“There are some inflexibilities in the Weather Service warning and product dissemination system that we could change for next time,” he told the Weather Channel.

Broun said Friday that he still has questions about the assessment.

“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,” he said.

NOAA said it plans to meet Broun’s Dec. 14 deadline for a response to his letter.

Jason Samenow is The Washington Post’s weather editor. Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and blogs for the Wall Street Journal.

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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