The National Weather Service has concluded that forecasters for the Washington-Baltimore region did not have quick-enough access to sufficient radar data March 6, 2004, when they were slow to detect severe thunderstorms that capsized a water taxi in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, killing five passengers.
In a report released yesterday, the weather service said that meteorologists in the Sterling office, which covers the Washington-Baltimore region, "met established requirements" in reacting to rapidly changing atmospheric conditions that Saturday afternoon 17 months ago.
The report, however, said that "with better access to additional observational data, and a more aggressive and efficient analysis of evolving weather conditions, it is likely forecasters would have increased their concern for thunderstorm development and associated high winds."
The storms, with wind gusts exceeding 50 mph, swept over Baltimore by surprise. Churning waters capsized the 36-foot Lady D, a pontoon boat, and plunged 23 passengers and two crew members into the frigid harbor. Twenty were pulled from the water alive in a frantic rescue effort.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident. The weather service has finished studying its role in the disaster and has analyzed how forecasters responded to changing weather conditions. The findings were first reported yesterday by the Baltimore Sun.
That Saturday morning, the report says, "a cold front stretched from southwest to northeast along the Appalachian Mountains. It was expected to push east during the day, reaching the Atlantic Coast by evening." Based on computer models, forecasters in Sterling "expected scattered showers to precede and accompany the advancing cold front. They also expected winds to shift from southerly to easterly and increase to around 20 mph."
As predicted, showers developed ahead of the front, the report says. "As the atmosphere became less stable through mid-afternoon, some showers gradually intensified. . . . as they advanced into central Maryland and Northern Virginia, moving toward the east-southeast at speeds from 40 to 50 mph." One cluster of stronger storms advanced directly toward Baltimore.
Interpreting the report yesterday, weather service spokesman Greg Romano said that forecasters in Sterling relied on their office's radar in gauging the storms' strength. But because of the Sterling radar's location relative to the direction of the storms, Romano said, the data were inaccurate, causing meteorologists to underestimate the weather's severity.
Had they been able to access radar information easily from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Romano said, the forecasters would have realized how dangerous the situation was becoming. In addition, data from BWI were not integrated into workstation computers in the Sterling office, and getting the information was a cumbersome process, he said.
Romano said BWI radar data are now easily accessible at the Sterling office. That was one of several changes recommended by the report.
Not until 4:05 p.m. that Saturday -- after surface equipment at BWI began registering the furious wind gusts and transmitting the data to Sterling -- did meteorologists issue a "special marine warning," or SMW.
"Although forecasters did not realize it at the time," the report says, "the SMW was issued just after the water taxi capsized."