The Washington Post

NWS Sandy assessment and hurricane warning criteria wrap-up

Since Superstorm Sandy struck, the National Weather Service has been embroiled in two controversies: 1) Why didn’t it issue hurricane watches and warnings during the storm? and 2) Why did it terminate a review of its performance- to including independent non-governmental leadership - in favor of a review excluding outside participation?

As of today, for the most part, these controversies have settled. An official at the National Hurricane Center, Chris Landsea, has admitted not issuing hurricane warnings during Sandy was a mistake, and revised criteria for issuing hurricane warnings have been proposed (although they were originally reported as official by AccuWeather).

And, NWS has explained why its assessment of Sandy, for now, cannot include outside experts on the writing team but that it hopes to establish procedures that allow non-governmental participation in the future.

Of course, arrival at these resolutions has been anything but smooth, raising questions about the clarity of process within the NWS, its transparency, and its ability to effectively communciate.

Rather than explaining, ad nauseum, the twists and turns of this whole episode, here is some telling commentary from various compelling sources which the NWS and meteorological community might reflect upon...

Why hurricane warnings were needed...

Bryan Norcross, the Weather Channel, via USA Today: Hurricane warnings “get people’s attention in a way that no local alert can,” Norcross says. “They stand out.” In a bad year, the USA might see only two hurricane watches or warnings, he says.

Ryan Hanrahan, Connecticut broadcast meteorologist: Most storms (e.g. Irene, Floyd, Bertha, Gloria, etc.) weaken as they undergo [extratropical transition]. Sandy strengthened as it underwent [extratropical transition].

Stu Ostro, the Weather Channel: “Hurricane warning” (or watch) has an aura to it that the other warnings, such as high wind or coastal flood warnings issued for Sandy, do not

On NWS’ psychological motivations for not issuing Hurricane Warnings...

Mike Smith, AccuWeather:Over the years I have learned (based on actual data from industrial psychologists) most meteorologists have intrinsic motivations. That is usually a good thing: It explains why meteorologists work ridiculous hours in critical weather situations. You wouldn’t want a “clock watcher” on duty when an F-5 tornado is bearing down on your town.

But, when intrinsic motivation is taken too far, a blind spot can exist: An excessive focus on meteorological minutiae (i.e., the temperature structure of Hurricane Sandy two miles above the ground) at the expense of clear threat communication with people outside the profession.

Link: National Hurricane Center statement concerning the expected transition of Hurricane Sandy to a Post-tropical cyclone and the flow of information from the National Weather Service

On NWS’ rationale for not issuing Hurricane Warnings...

Bryan Norcross, The Weather Channel: The premise of their reasoning is that the Hurricane Warning would have to have been taken down if the Sandy made a meteorological transition from a hurricane to a post-tropical storm (a nor’easter). It predicts that a calamity of confusion would have overtaken people in the hurricane zone if that happened.

First of all, nobody would have been confused if they didn’t confuse people. The messaging was in their control.

On the importance of non-governmental participation in NWS’ assessment of Sandy....

Nate Johnson, Digital Meteorologist: The NWS says in its own statement that including external experts on the assessment teams “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.”

On whether the disbanded assessment team had been given authorization and begun work...

Nate Johnson: Both Mike Smith from AccuWeather, one of two people picked to lead the team, and Greg Carbin, an NWS employee also selected to serve on the team, said they believed the team had been authorized to move forward. Carbin told’s Jillian Macmath, “I was working under the assumption that we were moving forward with this under an official capacity.” Smith wrote in a November 29th blog post, “I can provide the email approving the team, the team’s charter and even the accounting codes we were given for expense reimbursement! The team was approved and we had begun work!”...

The team thought they were clear to begin work and were moving forward accordingly, with at least some administrative and budgetary support from inside the NWS, including having being provided accounting codes and engaging in ... training. However, the NWS says clearly that the team’s charter was never formally approved.

.... This points to a clear and rather unfortunate disconnect between the NWS leadership and others – including the members of the team – about how official their work was

On NWS’ evolving explanations for disbanding the original assessment...

Nate Johnson: It is unfortunate that the NWS was not more forthcoming about both reasons for the Sandy assessment effort’s termination.

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

On the implications of the disbanded assessment...

Stu Ostro: ...there are new plans for an assessment, but regardless that cessation looked bad, raised eyebrows, and decreased trust.

On the new official Sandy assessment....

Nate Johnson: ....until NOAA and the NWS are able to comply with FACA [the Federal Advisory Committee Act - which provides guidelines for non-governmental participation] – June 1, 2013 is the date they’ve given – the upcoming Sandy assessment, as well as any further assessments, will be forced to draw their membership solely from the federal ranks. I work with a number of NWS colleagues on a number of projects: I know them to be good people, and I know those asked to participate on these assessments will do their level best to conduct those assessments thoroughly and professionally

On NWS’ clarification that updates to hurricane warning criteria were proposed, not policy as stated by a National Hurricane Center official

Bryan Norcross: NOAA confirmed and then unconfirmed on Wednesday that they decided to redefine a Hurricane Warning… slightly. A report issued after last week’s annual NOAA Hurricane Meeting – where they review the past hurricane season and vote on improved policies – includes the new language...

Why they did the confirmation double-dance is a mystery. jumped the gun and released this small part of the document before an official NOAA press release was sent out. They got confirmation that it was accurate from folks at the National Hurricane Center, as did we at The Weather Channel. Then later in the day, NOAA in Washington chimed in and said, in effect, “stop the presses, it’s just a proposal”. Whatever.

On the value of NHC’s proposed new hurricane warning criteria...

Ryan Hanrahan: It appears the NHC is taking steps to rectify their rigid rules and policies to become more common sense and practical. That’s good. Flexibility and removing barriers to effective communication is a good step to improving weather warnings in the future. The much larger issue, however, is figuring out how people best respond to weather warnings. In order to respond to a warning you need to know, and believe, that you’re in a vulnerable place. A warning people don’t listen to isn’t any good.

Jason is the Washington Post’s weather editor and Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist. He earned a master's degree in atmospheric science, and spent 10 years as a climate change science analyst for the U.S. government. He holds the Digital Seal of Approval from the National Weather Association.

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