Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Year After Sandy -- Are We Better Educated On Storm Impacts?

Sandy's brunt was felt one year ago yesterday -- restating the obvious in terms of impact, disaster, and everything else has been done by everyone else, everywhere else.

The storm wasn't your typical hurricane. Whether or not you want to argue the semantics of continuing warnings to landfall and the National Hurricane Center choosing not to consider Sandy a hurricane, what matters more is not whether a storm is tropical or not, it's about what the damn storm is going to do.

We're still missing that point in many quarters of the weather industry.

While I do think we are seeing improvement in communicating impacts -- what a storm will do, when, and where -- I do think we're still missing the point in large extent with hurricanes and storms. Reports from media focus on the position of a hurricane, for instance, while not communicating on the size of the storm or its potential impact. It's "easier" to throw coordinates for the center on a graphic, post that on TV or a website but not focusing on the radius of tropical storm force winds. Given Sandy's maximum winds were lower than Katrina's when it came ashore, or that its pressure was not far removed from Hugo, maximum winds or center points aren't the key arbiter of what matters with a storm. Size matters. Impacts matter.

“(It’s) not just physical science anymore,” Louis Uccellini said of the job of severe weather forecasting at the NWS in a very well-written piece of Andrew Freedman at Climate Central. “It’s physical science plus social science, if in fact we want people to take the response that we expect when we make the forecast.”

Getting over the title, the center point, those little details in the hurricane advisories are a starting point.  Some have gotten the hint -- we posted what Brad Panovich from Charlotte posted on his Facebook page back in June when Tropical Storm Andrea moved up the East Coast.  Some forecasters, including us, have shunned usage of Saffir-Simpson and are stressing the need to focus on what a storm *can* do as opposed to what a storm's maximum winds or lowest pressure are.  Given how mediocre this hurricane season was, we weren't tested on this too heavily.  That said, avoiding categories and focusing more on what happens where is starting to happen...it's struggling to happen in enough places though.

Communication is critical -- showing what, where, when, how bad, and how much (wind, rain) are things that matter to many. A title, a name doesn't change that. Irene was a hurricane, Sandy was a hybrid storm of both tropical and nontropical characteristics. Both had completely different impacts along the East Coast based on the location one resides at.

No two storms are alike. If that point hasn't sunk in people's heads by now, I don't know if it ever will but it's a point that I think the weather community needs to make sure we beat over people's heads. No two hurricanes are alike, no two nor'easters are alike. Every storm brings its own little "variety" to the table.  Labels and titles don't magically make them the same.  At the end of the day, it's "what's it going to do, where's it going to happen, how much, and when" that matters.

Media, meteorologists, and the weather industry collectively need to emphasize that point repeatedly. If you need to "bludgeon" the point home ad nauseum, do so. At the end of the day, it's the public (end consumer) that ingests what they see from us and from those who are running other news and information sources. It's our job to educate the consumer on what's going to happen.

By and large, growing numbers of the weather community appear to be getting that hint to an extent. Not everyone is, yet...but until we see another "test" case with a large scale storm coming for any significant part of the US, it may be hard to see just how much improvement really has been made in communication of impact and less about mere points or titles.