Hurricane Sandy (NOAA)

Two weeks ago, a routine National Weather Service (NWS) review of forecast and warning services provided during superstorm Sandy was halted. We have learned high-level conversations between NWS and the Department of Homeland Security motivated the stoppage.

In an email statement, National Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said, “work on the NWS service assessment was stopped by the acting director of the National Weather Service after initial discussions with DHS about a potential broader federal assessment.”

NWS has not yet released information on the scope of a new assessment process or its timeline.

The proposed focus of the halted investigation was the National Weather Service’s communication of Sandy’s threat.

Related: Weather Service Halts Review of Its Work During Sandy (Climate Central)

At issue was the non-traditional way the NWS shared forecast information in advance of the storm’s landfall. Because of the unique meteorological characteristics of Sandy -- a hurricane that was merging with a nor’easter -- prior to landfall, the National Weather Service chose not to issue standard hurricane watches and warnings. Instead, a phalanx of non-tropical “high wind warnings”, “coastal flood warnings”, and various local statements were issued by the decentralized regional NWS offices. This decision contrasted with the run up to Hurricane Irene, when the top-down National Hurricane Center (NHC) issued official hurricane warnings from North Carolina to Massachusetts.

Bryan Norcross, the Weather Channel’s hurricane expert, was sharply critical of the decision not to issue hurricane watches and warnings, asserting NHC’s adherence to “arcane and inflexible rules” compromised clear, effective communication.

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

Of particular concern to Norcross were Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks at a news conference two days before Sandy’s landfall, about the time hurricane watches are typically issued for approaching storms. At the time, Bloomberg downplayed Sandy’s risk.

“Although we’re expecting a large surge of water, it is not expected to be a tropical storm or hurricane-type surge,” Bloomberg said. “With this storm, we’ll likely see a slow pileup of water rather than a sudden surge, which is what you would expect with a hurricane, and which we saw with Irene 14 months ago. So it will be less dangerous.”

Norcross called Bloomberg’s remarks “incomprehensibly inexplicable” leaving him to wonder if “the missing Hurricane Watch sent the Mayor off-kilter.”

NHC director Rick Knabb admitted closely following procedure may have resulted in confusing messages.

“....there are some inflexiblities in the weather service warning and product dissemination system that we could change for next time,” Knabb told the Weather Channel. “And we’re going to start working on that right here at the beginning of the off-season.”

The halted assessment

Mike Smith, a senior vice president at the private meteorology firm AccuWeather, was to head the NWS assessment -- the first time a person outside government was chosen to do so.

“People -- including Mayor Bloomberg -- were mislead 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,” said Smith, a board-certified consulting meteorologist. “This was a very poor decision by the NWS.”

Although the initial decision to stop the review was phrased by a National Weather Service official as a “termination”, Buchanan has since clarified this as a “temporary delay”.

In a statement, Buchanan added, “perhaps “terminate” was a harsh word choice. If a broader federal assessment does not take place, NWS will move forward with its own assessment.”

However, team members of the kaput NWS review have concerns that its independence and timeliness -- even its existence -- is now at stake.

“In the history of the NWS, there has never been an aborted service assessment,” said Smith. “I do not believe there has ever been a multi-agency storm review of the type the NWS has been discussing. I am skeptical it will occur.”

He added: “We had an excellent team that would have answered these questions, and many more, in a fair and authoritative manner.”

Congress seeks answers on termination

Congressman Paul Broun, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, wrote a letter to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco stating he was “concerned” about the assessment termination.

“It is imperative that NWS act quickly and decisively in performing an assessment,” Broun wrote. “With each passing day, the next Service Assessment team may experience increased challenges in collecting the information it needs for a comprehensive report.”

Broun asks Lubchenco 7 questions inquiring about the rationale for the termination, reasoning for a possible “larger, multi-agency” review, the schedule for a future assessment, and participation from outside (non-governmental) independent experts, among other issues.

New assessment recommendations

While it’s unclear what form any new assessment may take, Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, a union group, stressed NWS must critically examine its own performance.

“[A broader multi-agency] assessment shouldn’t replace the NWS looking at itself and considering how to do this better next time,” Sobien said.

Sobien recommended there be two assessments, one dedicated NWS assessment and a second multi-agency assessment.

“It’s extremely important that we get the bigger picture looking at how all agencies used our data, how NWS communicated them and how the different government agencies interacted, including state and local government,” Sobien said.

Lessons for the future

Gina Eosco, another member of the disbanded NWS team, is conducting her Ph.D. research on weather warning communication at Cornell University. She intends to use Sandy as a learning opportunity to help improve emergency preparedness in the future. “This type of storm will happen again,” said Eosco. “Bottom line, this is about saving lives. We don’t want more NYC lives lost [from a similar storm in the future].”

With climate change threatening to bring stronger storms to Greater New York, Eosco wants the region to be prepared.

“We want to put policies in place that prevent hazards becoming a disaster,” Eosco said.

* Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and blogger for the Wall Street Journal