Bryan Norcross' Official Blog

Uncovering the Lessons of Sandy

By: bnorcross, 5:22 AM GMT on November 19, 2012

The toll and trauma from Sandy continue to mount with cost estimates skyrocketing. Sandy could end up with a price tag higher than Katrina's. And the heartbreaking reality that the devastated neighborhoods will take years to put back together, and will never be the same, has set in.

Where will the money come from to rebuild? Many people had no flood insurance. What will they be allowed to rebuild? What should they be allowed to rebuild? Where can they go in the meantime in a region famous for high rents and housing challenges. These are extremely difficult questions to answer.

Other states have gone through this wrenching slog after major hurricane disasters, of course. Florida after Andrew; Louisiana after Katrina; Texas after Ike. Things HAVE TO change. But it's a staggeringly difficult process for the governments and the people in the middle of it.

And there are mountains of other questions that need answers. The biggest one, of course, how did a well predicted storm that did well predicted things cause so much hardship and death?

Bad storms do bad things, but when we know the bad things are coming, and hundreds of thousands of people don't protect themselves, a hard look at the processes and policies that were executed is required.

The National Weather Service does a "Service Assessment" after every major, deadly event to determine what they did right and what needs to be fixed. I've been interviewed for a number of Service Assessments after big hurricanes over the years, and my impression was that they were rigorously and impartially done.

But last week, the Weather Service canceled the Sandy assessment just a week into the process. They obviously knew the stakes were high this time because they took the extraordinary step of having a private-sector meteorologist, Mike Smith of Accuweather, co-chair the survey and report. But, somebody decided that the extraordinary events - and perhaps the extraordinarily tragic outcome - of the storm called for a different and broader-based approach. Who made the decision to cancel, and exactly why the decision was made has not been, to the best of my knowledge, released.

There's no doubt in my mind that Mike Smith and the National Weather Service team would have made a detailed and accurate assessment of the questionable decisions - which I and others have roundly criticized - involving NHC advisories and the bulletins issued by local offices within the NWS's Eastern Region. But the fact is, the communications problems in Sandy reached to New York City, Trenton, Albany, and beyond.

Hopefully the rethinking of the process will mean a more extensive and far-reaching analysis so we can fully learn the lessons from Sandy... as opposed to obscuring the lessons in a cloud of finger-pointing. We'll see.

It's natural to focus on New York City because the organizations that handle emergencies there - from the Mayor's office to emergency management - are, in general, the biggest and best at what they do. But CLEARLY there was a breakdown. Sandy's storm-surge was accurately forecast to inundate the low-lying parts of the region. Somehow, as good as they are, the emergency planning and communications team in New York City did not seem to understand or plan for this scenario.

It's important for the city to learn what went wrong, but it's equally important for other emergency planners to learn as well. It will be difficult for the professional and dedicated people in New York to subject their decision-making processes to the kind of examination that should be undertaken, but it should be undertaken just the same.

Two facts highlight the problem. On Saturday, October 27th, the First Selectman of Fairfield, CT, Michael Tetreau, announced an evacuation order to be completed by 11 PM that Sunday, saying they "could see flooding that exceeds the damage from the 1938 hurricane". Yet the message from Mayor Bloomberg that same day carried nothing like that urgency.

Also, we now know that an untold number of New York City firefighters and policemen stayed in their homes near the water, only to end up leaving in the middle of the storm in a nightmare evacuation... lashing family members together to hang on through the raging water. These are people that understand that really bad crap happens in the world. You'd think that an NYC firefighter, if anybody, would have taken action to protect his family if he understood that the ocean was going to come surging through the house. That was exactly the forecast, but that, obviously, did not come through in the messaging.

Communicating evacuations is tricky business. It includes motivational speaking and step-by-step explanation... and extensive repetition. Nobody wants to leave their home and the natural instinct is to rationalize 1000 reasons why to NOT evacuate. Leadership combined with motherly love is required.

None of the governors and certainly not the Mayor did this according to best practices, even though the storm and the forecast provided every opportunity. Hopefully Sandy will be THE teachable moment that will instill better communications planning and yields a system that can lead people though the mental process of understanding the threat and taking the right action.

On another front, word also came out last week that the National Weather Service is looking for a CFO to develop a plan to do the NWS's work with fewer people. As poor as the decision-making of the Weather Service management was during Sandy, that's a separate issue from staffing. They don't have enough people in many local NWS offices now. This is a serious problem.

The National Weather Service has had a PR problem in Congress for some time. I testified at a Senate hearing in the 90s when they were talking about getting rid of the Commerce Department and privatizing many National Weather Service functions. I said then, and I say now, you don't want the standards of the nation's weather-data collection, analysis, forecasting, and warning system set by the lowest bidder and profit incentives. You want the standards to be absolute and extremely high.

The hearings were mostly political grandstanding. Everybody who testified on the day I was there said it was a bad idea, and thankfully good sense prevailed. But the PR problem remains.

Unfortunately, if you had to pick a body that doesn't have a reputation for good decision-making these days it would be the U.S. House of Representatives. And they have the purse strings. Add to that the NWS messaging malfunction during Sandy and it's a recipe for budget cuts that would do real damage to our nation's weather-warning system. There is reason for significant concern.

And the real problems of the toxic mix of flood, homeowners,and hurricane insurance continue to mount as well. I keep promising more on that and I'll get there. Stay tuned.







Hurricane Nor'Easter

Updated: 5:48 AM GMT on November 19, 2012

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After the Storm - Reasons and Excuses

By: bnorcross, 3:46 AM GMT on November 12, 2012

It's been two weeks since Sandy assaulted the northeast coast, and still over 190,000 customers are without power... although some of those happened during Winter Storm Athena. In any case, more than 60% of the outages are on Long Island.

When you look at the distribution of Sandy's winds, you can see at least part of the reason. A band of strong winds rotating around the nor'easter part of Sandy raked Long Island from end to end. That east-to-west band pushed record high water into Long Island Sound and ripped through southern New England as well. Islip recorded a gust of 90 mph, and there were a number of hurricane-force gusts recorded from southern New England to northern New Jersey.

But, these were gusts, not sustained winds, and the sustained-wind number is what counts when we talk about whether a storm is a tropical storm or a hurricane. In fact, most of this area was affected by tropical-storm-force sustained winds with occasional gusts to hurricane force.

When the NHC labels a system a 90-mph hurricane, they mean that somewhere - anywhere will do - in the circulation there are sustained, one-minute-averaged winds of 74 mph or higher. There might be a little patch of winds at that strength out over the ocean, or there could be a big swath or a donut of 90-mph wind rotating around the storm. All of those possibilities would still rate a 90-mph hurricane.

In the case of Sandy, there was a patch of winds up near 90 mph, but there was ALSO a big swath of winds sustained between about 65 and 75 mph which did the damage on Long Island.

The scary part of this is that the highest sustained winds over land were mostly likely ONLY about 65 to 75 mph. What would happen if a Category 3 hurricane came though there with sustained winds over 115 mph and gusts to 140? If Sandy taxed the power-recovery system, the fuel-delivery system, and every other system, a Category 3 would be nightmare that's hard to think about. But, hopefully some people are thinking about that, since it's clear that the pre-Sandy plan was not good enough.

None of this means that the Long Island Power Authority is blameless in the horrendous post-Sandy situation on the Island. Maybe they had an appropriate hurricane plan, maybe not. But, at least it's understandable why the wind-damage, a.k.a. the dark and freezing nightmare, was concentrated there.

Which brings us to the pre-Sandy Bloomdoggle on the Saturday before the storm. I'm hoping that the Mayor comes clean about what led him to conclude that Sandy's mega-push of water was "not expected to be a tropical-storm- or hurricane-type surge". There was also that business about the water rising slower than in hurricanes... blah blah blah. It sounded a lot like somebody was whispering bad meteorology in the Mayor's ear. Could he really have come up with all of that on his own? Hard to imagine.

In any case, there is a HUGE lesson here for politicians and emergency managers who need to accurately characterize the type and level of threat to the public. Get some qualified help to craft the message. Attribute the forecast and the predicted effects to the source of the information. Don't try to out-guess the experts. And for god's sake, don't try to be an amateur meteorologist.

Remember, if you sound like a dope giving the wrong forecast, it will taint the other good things you do, which are most likely in your wheelhouse.

I'm hoping that we find out how this went so wrong in a generally well run Bloomberg administration. It would be very instructive. Although it's not hard to imagine that the lawyers have imposed a cone of silence.

A piece of the puzzle might be the local New York-area forecast from the National Weather Service Saturday morning:

2 TO 3 FT ABOVE ASTRONOMICAL TIDES MONDAY MORNING INTO TUESDAY MORNING...WITH POSSIBLE HIGHER DEPARTURES DEPENDENT UPON THE TRACK OF SANDY.

Holy crap! That was a TERRIBLE forecast. The water rose about 9 feet at the Battery Monday night, and higher in other places. By Saturday afternoon, 8 hours later, they made a slight adjustment:

POTENTIAL FOR 4 TO 8 FT DEPARTURES MONDAY NIGHT INTO TUESDAY MORNING.

How is that kind of radical change possible when the forecast for the storm didn't change at all? It's possible because the people that know the most about storm surge are at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, and the local National Weather Service offices sometimes go rogue before coordinating their message with the NHC.

My experience with the people at the National Hurricane Center AND the local NWS offices is beyond good. They are true professionals working, in the case of the local offices, in an under-funded environment. But sometimes that whole NOAA/NWS/NHC train jumps the track because they don't know when to throw the switch and head for Plan B - the big-emergency, gotta-get-it-right, smack-the-public-in-the-head plan.

This dysfunctional storm-surge messaging was brought to you by the same arcane and inflexible rules and structure that prevented a Hurricane Watch and Warning from being issued for an extremely dangerous hurricane that was forecast to slam the coast. The technicalities of the meteorology at landfall were invoked for that one. I'm betting that something about the time window for coordination not being open or some other blah-blah-blah will be rolled out as an excuse for the drastically bad early-morning storm surge forecast.

The pros at the National Weather Service can do better. I'm hoping that this is the last time the rules, procedures, and administrative nonsense get in the way of dealing with reality. When reality says the rules don't apply because something REALLY bad is coming, break the freakin' rules.

I might have just crafted Plan B. 1) Ignore the stupid rules. 2) Ask the pros what to do.

My post on hurricane insurance (sic) got some nice comments. Lots more on that to come.




Hurricane Nor'Easter

Updated: 4:56 AM GMT on November 12, 2012

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Sandy: What Happened and What's Next

By: bnorcross, 4:01 AM GMT on November 05, 2012

It's cold and getting colder with a soaking nor'easter set to blow through the storm zone Wednesday night through Thursday. People in New Jersey, New York, and southern New England that are stuck without heat are going to need help to get through this week.

The current forecast storm track would cause minor coastal flooding, gusty winds that could bring more power problems, and wet snow at higher elevations. But the biggest threat is the cold, wet, and windy weather's impact on people that are not prepared to deal with more misery. We need a big effort. There are a lot of folks and there's a lot of misery.

Meanwhile, the big-storm cleanup is underway, and there is already talk about what should be done "to be sure it doesn't happen again". That's all well and good, but we're not even 100 percent sure what happened at landfall, so let's start there.

What was going on with Sandy at landfall?

Sandy was behaving as forecast through most of the day last Monday. It was an off-the-charts unusual storm - something like a hurricane embedded in a nor'easter - but the forecast nailed it in almost every way. Then something changed Monday afternoon.

Instead of slowing down as forecast, it took off like a rocket ship heading for the South Jersey coast. On that pace and track, the center would have crossed the coast near Cape May about 6 PM. But the center hung something of a right and it took 2 hours longer to get to the coastline farther north, 5 miles from Atlantic City. At least that was the National Hurricane Center analysis at the time it was happening.

Additionally, at 7 PM, with the center less than 20 miles offshore, the NHC declared Sandy "post-tropical". In other words, in their analysis, the technical, meteorological structure of the system wasn't enough of a hurricane anymore to continue with that classification. Well... maybe, maybe not.

There were complicated things going on near landfall and it's going to take detailed analysis to figure out what the center of the hurricane part of Sandy did, and how it related to the nor'easter part of the storm. This type of post-analysis happens with every storm, but in this case it could have big ramifications.

If the conclusion is that Sandy was still a hurricane - meaning the structure of the system was mostly tropical, not mostly nor'easter - what does that do to insurance deductibles? In many cases big deductibles kick in when a "hurricane" makes landfall, as opposed to a tropical storm or some other freak-job of a storm structure. Hurricane warnings can play into it as well.

There have already been very official sounding proclamations by governors and other optimists that the big deductibles will NOT apply since it wasn't a hurricane. There is the potential for a big mess here if the science proves otherwise.

Hurricane Hunters were flying through the center of the hurricane part of Sandy right up until landfall, so there will be lots of data to analyze. It usually takes some months before the final conclusions are formulated.

So what about hurricane insurance?

It's a nightmare and an embarrassment. It's a nightmare because there is no such thing as "hurricane insurance". What? Shock! Wait! I'm paying an insurance company for something they call hurricane insurance, how can that be?

Insurance works by averaging losses. An insurance company knows, plus or minus, how many house fires or car wrecks there are going to be in a year, calculates an average loss number, and figures out what it has to charge to pay those losses, run their business, and make a profit. If you can count, you can sell that kind of insurance, pretty much.

But, hurricanes don't happen very often, so what's the average? There is no good answer, so they make something up, and justify it with ridiculous computer models, which don't represent reality as much as they allow for higher insurance premiums. And this way, every time a big storm comes along, the number gets bigger and the premiums go up.

That means that insurance companies make record profits, as long as there are no big hurricanes.

The fact is, there is no answer. Hurricanes are not like car wrecks. You're not going to suddenly have double the number of accidents, for example, or fires or people dying. But the insured damage from a single hurricane can be astronomical, even after years of little or no payouts. And then there could be another mega-storm next week. And maybe another after that. Pick up the history book, it happens.

Events that don't happen regularly enough to be averaged are, by definition, not insurable. Everybody in the insurance industry know that, but they are making LOTS of money. So, it doesn't roll off anybody's tongue when the subject of raising rates comes up.

The embarrassing part of this is that legislators in Washington and elsewhere should have done something about this years ago. There is really only one solution, which I detailed in my 2007 Hurricane Almanac - page 176 if you're counting.

After every big disaster, the federal government coughs up untold billions of dollars to help people without insurance, to rebuild things that got smashed, to bail out cities, counties, and states, you name it. That's political reality. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'm just saying it's irresponsible to do it on an ad hoc basis every time, when an organized system is possible, which would save money.

The idea is to put a ceiling on the private-insurance-industry losses from big disasters in any given year by creating a federal fund that would kick in when there's a catastrophe. That would lower rates because insurance companies would know what their maximum loss could be, and it would bring in more companies. The threshold would be high enough that private insurance would handle all but the catastrophic events. The system could also be used to force states to enforce better building codes and insurance participation as the cost of entry into the cheaper-insurance system.

There's no appetite for this in Congress because people in Indiana don't want to pay for smashed summer homes at the Jersey Shore. Wake up people in Indiana, you're paying anyway. Do it right, and you'll pay less.

What about the building codes?

Here's the test for New Jersey and other states in the northeast. Are they going to let people rebuild along the beach without doing something to make the buildings stronger? They could start with requiring houses to be connected to their foundations so they don't float down the street and smash into the neighbor's. Making them a little higher would seem to make sense too.

It's not like this has never happened to the Jersey Shore. Google the "Ash Wednesday Storm" in 1962. If the pictures and film weren't grainy and mostly black and white, you think it was Sandy.

So let's see if Governor Christi steps up and sends the lobbyists who hate this kind of thing packing back to Florida where they have a compliant legislature with a perpetual case of hurricane amnesia.

Building standards that are dramatically stronger cost about 10 percent more in South Florida. That means you pay the same, but get Home Depot tile instead of Italian marble. Or, you get a 2700 square foot weekend cottage instead of 3000 square feet. In any case, the solution is easy, you adjust.

And then there's the HELP WANTED sign in the Mayor's window.

I didn't really see the sign, but clearly the Chief of Common Sense position is vacant. I lived in New York up until a couple of years ago, and always thought Mr. Bloomberg was a terrific mayor. But something has gone seriously wrong. From the amateur meteorology before the storm to the marathon fiasco in the aftermath, the flagrant fouls and unforced errors have tarnished what I'm sure is an all-out effort to do what's best for the city and its people. Hopefully they can right that ship.

When the crisis has past and the people are taken care of, the time will come to figure out how the mayor of America's greatest city was so misinformed or misguided that he told people they didn't have to evacuate and then changed his mind 24 hours later... while the storm didn't change at all. In truth, even the various governors who had the right message were late into the game. There's something broken here that needs an urgent fix.

And something about FEMA.

We haven't heard much about the idea of having states take over the functions of FEMA lately. It's like Mother Nature wanted to make it clear that it's an idiotic idea. That's not a political statement, it's just common sense.

FEMA works because it has a mountain of resources to deal with mega catastrophes. Would it somehow be more efficient to have 50 mountains instead of one? Obviously not. State and local government handle things until the scale of the event overwhelms them. Then you need the people, planning, and equipment to literally move a mountain.

That's FEMA. That's the system. And it works, when it's run right.

Fortunately, we have an extraordinarily guy running FEMA. Nobody knows emergency management better than Craig Fugate - he's from Florida so I've seen his work first hand. If anybody can move a mountain, it's Craig.

In fact, it's worth saying, in my experience - which is extensive because I'm old - the people that respond to emergency situations in emergency management, local National Weather Service offices, and the National Hurricane Center are exactly the kind of professional and dedicated people that you would want handling your disaster.

Sometimes maddening red tape and out-of-date rules get in the way, but in my experience, the people inside the government are pushing just as hard to break through the nonsense as we are pulling for the right solution. There are already signs that better answers and better systems will emerge in the long run.

More immediately, however, our full attention and resources need to be focused on the people who are stuck in the cold and dark with a strong nor'easter on the way. For them, it's going to be a very tough week.






Hurricane Nor'Easter

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About bnorcross

This is the official blog for Bryan Norcross, Hurricane Specialist at The Weather Channel.

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