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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The National Hurricane Center’s communication during Irma was not a problem

Hurricane Irma (NOAA)
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The author, James Franklin, worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for 35 years, the last 17 years at National Hurricane Center, and recently retired. He writes the following response to this perspective by Bryan Norcross: Hurricane Center creates great forecasts, but its communications system gets in the way.

I’m struggling to understand Bryan Norcross’s issues with National Hurricane Center messaging during Hurricane Irma’s approach to South Florida. He seems to be concerned that Miami residents think they dodged a bullet — that Irma was forecast to hit Miami but turned away and hit Naples instead. I’m not sure why that impression on the part of Miami residents should be a concern.

Norcross believes that the publicly available message was all about Miami, but the National Hurricane Center’s forecasts at various times showed tracks along both the east and west coasts of Florida.

The first National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast graphic to show a Florida landfall (Advisory 28, issued at 11 p.m., Sept. 5) showed landfall occurring in the Lower Keys, with the cone encompassing all of south Florida. From 11 a.m., Sept. 6, to 5 p.m., Sept. 7, Miami indeed fell almost directly on the forecast track. With the 11 p.m. advisory Sept. 7, however, more than two days before landfall, the NHC forecast track began to shift westward away from Miami. Thirty-six hours in advance (and thereafter) the NHC forecast graphics showed the center crossing the Lower Keys. In all of these forecast graphics, all of South Florida was within the cone.

So what is the problem here that requires a solution?

If Miami residents (at least the ones overheard in restaurants) think they were lucky, they’re entirely correct in thinking that way. Miami was in the crosshairs of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane for a time, but was spared Irma’s worst impacts. I hope that Norcross isn’t implying that because several forecast graphics from NHC showed the center of Irma directly striking Miami, that residents on the Florida west coast might have been unprepared. That would indeed have been a messaging failure, but there’s no evidence presented that such a failure occurred, and to his credit, Norcross does not suggest that that occurred. (I personally had to take preparations on both coasts and didn’t observe a lack of response in Southwest Florida.)

While I was still working at NHC, we added a new section, called “Key Messages,” into the Tropical Cyclone Discussion, We did this after some valid concerns were raised by Norcross and others that the messaging during 2015’s Tropical Storm Erika was not effective. Although many in the general public do read the Tropical Cyclone Discussion, the Key Messages are primarily intended to help media meteorologists quickly identify and focus on the most important points to communicate to their viewers and listeners. The messages generally focus on issues of uncertainty, risk and hazards that cannot be easily conveyed in a simple graphic.

In addition, NHC this year has published the Key Messages in stand-alone form at the top of its website and publicized them heavily through social media. Media and emergency management response to Key Messages since their introduction with Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 has been overwhelmingly positive. Norcross is simply wrong to say that these messages are “buried.”

During my 35 years at NOAA, the NHC product suite changed greatly, in response to ideas coming from inside and outside the agency. While it’s always good to take a critical eye to the product suite, there is far more to do than can be done with available resources. Near as I can tell, residents of both Florida coasts by and large took the appropriate actions in response to the threats that Irma posed to the state. And Miami residents did dodge a bullet. I can’t help thinking that Norcross’s comments represent a solution in search of a problem.