Monday, December 03, 2012

The Sandy Investigation Is Back On...In-House

The on-again, off-again investigation into the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center's handling of Sandy from a warning and forecasting standpoint is back on again.

Statement from NOAA --

"NOAA will proceed with an assessment of National Weather Service products and services during Sandy as it often does after damaging or deadly weather events. The new assessment team will soon form and focus on reviewing the policies underlying weather watches and warnings, and storm surge-related products. The team's report will identify best practices, provide recommendations for service improvements, and include a suggested implementation plan. The proposed assessment team includes representatives from across NOAA and other government agencies, including FEMA."

Unlike the initial investigation, this one is 100% internal and directed from and by NOAA. This is in contrast to the initial investigation that was directed by NOAA and a "team" effort of both meteorologists inside of the organization and others on the outside. The others on the outside included meteorologists, social scientists, and others in the private sector not necessarily in the weather business.

The new NOAA investigation will be made up solely of NOAA staff, without private sector incorporation.

Does such a committee provide the opportunity for a wholesale, clear review of the storm and whether or not the NWS handled it appropriately, given it would be made up of internal employees?

For the record, I do think there should be some tweaks and changes to warnings and the like and I also believe there should be some investigation into the process. However, I'm not in the full blown "appalled" category as some are with the lack of private sector input. It is the 21st Century -- the world is much more connected and those involved with the committee are likely tuned in to a point to public concerns. Provided the committee membership is publicly known (we know the names and faces that make up this group), any investigation is better than NO investigation.

My concerns with Sandy aren't solely from the titling of the storm and whether it was a hurricane or not, but from the internal siloing of warnings within the NWS. For instance, if Hurricane Warnings were issued and the storm transitioned to nontropical prior to landfall, the current protocol requires that those warnings be dropped and gale and storm warnings be issued in its place. From a technical, scientific standpoint, the NWS and NHC were correct in those warnings and their forecasts of the storm not being tropical at landfall verified. It wasn't tropical although the transition away from tropical to nontropical occurred in the last hour or two of the storm's time over the Atlantic.  Should there have been stronger worded warnings than high wind or coastal flood? Yes. Would it have limited loss of life? Perhaps but we do not know this with certainty.  There was enough forewarning and talk about this in the media and in forecast circles and for several days it was predicted to be a bad storm to some degree.

The problem in this case is the unique and unorthodox type of storm that Sandy was, a hybrid of tropical and nontropical characteristics, moving in at a nontraditional trajectory. It was a most unusual storm and one that we likely do not see in our lifetimes play out just like Sandy did. The siloing of warnings, with clearly defined separation between tropical and nontropical products, is not always effective. Sandy, The Perfect Storm in '91, and there are others.

One of the recommendations that I hope comes out of this is the end of utilizing the Saffir-Simpson Scale as an objective tool of measuring storms. Sandy featured wind speeds not substantially higher than Irene but because of its size, generated much more damage. A different scale -- IKE or otherwise -- should be used. Second, the policy that hurricane warnings cannot be continued if a storm is no longer "tropical" when it is approaching a landfall should end. The past fixation from many in the media about hurricane category and wind speed with storms is something that hopefully changes. Saffir-Simpson was a useful tool 50 years ago but as science has evolved, shouldn't our "official" classification scale on hurricanes also evolve?

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