One of the most powerful cyclones on record in the North Pacific Ocean ravaged the outer Aleutian Islands over the weekend. The storm was what meteorologists call a “bomb cyclone” — one that is strengthening so rapidly that it drops over 24 millibars in 24 hours. This storm doubled that rate.
Hurricane-force winds gusted to 122 mph on the Aleutian Islands. The storm ended up being one of the top five strongest cyclones that the Weather Service had ever measured in Alaska.
But while there’s no question that this storm was a behemoth, there seems to be some question about the accuracy and timeliness of the forecasts issued by the National Weather Service in Anchorage, despite multiple days’ notice of strong winds.
Way out in the central Aleutian Islands, Adak, Alaska, is one of the most remote locations in the entire United States. Home to just 326 people, the tiny island city was hit hard by hurricane-force winds and coastal flooding over the weekend.
Adak city manager Layton Lockett told Alaska Public News that the damage was “substantial,” and that he was disappointed in the forecasts.
“Lot of personal property damage… the solariums that are attached to people’s homes… A lot of the bigger warehouse buildings had significant damage to them from the pressure and the battering that we received,” Lockett said. “We are very disappointed in the National Weather Service in their communications aspect. Their forecast was not nearly close to being anywhere accurate — nor was it timely updated.”
Sam Albanese, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Anchorage, said he was surprised by the reaction given the success of the forecast. “We did as good as you would expect,” Albanese told The Washington Post. “The [high wind] warning had no less than 16 hours advance notice. We even put up a Facebook post about this on Friday around the same time we issued the warning.”
A weekend winter storm was in the forecast for Adak starting Monday. As each day passed, the forecast wording grew stronger. By Thursday, the Weather Service was forecasting wind gusts up to 85 mph.
The high wind watch was issued at 5 a.m. on Friday. At 4 p.m., the watch was upgraded to a high wind warning for 70 mph winds, gusting to 95 mph on Saturday afternoon. Soon after, the Weather Service posted a Facebook forecast relaying that a powerful storm would bring very strong winds (over 70 mph) to the western and central Aleutians late Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon.
The warning-level winds hit Adak around 12 p.m. on Saturday — just a few hours earlier than forecast, but still a 16-hour lead time. At 4 p.m., winds were up to 60 mph, and gusting to 90 mph.
By 9:30 p.m. Friday, it was clear that this storm was going to exceed the original warning, so forecasters updated the warning to account for winds of 80 mph, gusting to 110 mph.
Around 12 a.m. Sunday, the strongest winds were recorded: 94 mph gusting to 122 mph.
For his part, Albanese is not as worried about warning lead times or forecast verification as he is about the Adak city manager not getting the forecast message. “My concern,” said Albanese, “is what did we miss here? Why did Mr. Lockett feel like he didn’t get the information to do his job?”
Adak is remote in location, but it’s not technologically remote. The city has cable TV and internet, so they receive weather information the same way mainland locations do. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were all used by the National Weather Service to disseminate the forecast in the days leading up to this storm.
The city is also well-equipped to handle storms of this magnitude. Houses are built to code to withstand hurricane-force winds. Albanese says while this storm was definitely a strong one, Adak sees winds of this magnitude maybe once of twice a year. “Preparedness is kind of a way of life out there,” Albanese said. “This storm was in the top five that we’ve ever measured in the state. When you put that into perspective, the fact that your house didnt blow over is a testament when you’re talking about 125 mph winds.”
“Quite honestly if that would have been a different community this storm would have been devastating,” he added.
Albanese says the Anchorage office has been trying to get in touch with Lockett, though they haven’t been able to connect. Albanese wants to find out where the Weather Service was lacking, and connect Lockett with a warning dissemination service that will send him personalize weather alerts so it won’t happen again.
For Albanese, communication is the bottom line. “If an official in that community is not aware of something like this, then we’ve got to figure out where it went wrong.”
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