The hurricane season is over, so the fix-the-system season can begin. There are a lot of tropical takeaways from the last few months, but my biggest one is that the system we have in the United States for communicating a serious hurricane threat is drastically and dangerously dysfunctional.
The communications system is so fundamentally broken that the fact of a clear and present threat to New York City – the most important city in the country – did not accurately, fully, and dramatically reach the Mayor and the key people running the city on that critical Friday before the Monday storm.
“Threat” is the key word. More important than the storm track, wind, or surge forecast, a decision-maker needs to know, understand, and feel the threat to his/her area of responsibility. There’s an equation involved. The threat at any location is equal to the odds of something bad happening times the consequences.
THREAT = ODDS X CONSEQUENSES
In New York City, for example, study after study showed that the consequences of a hurricane making landfall in or near New Jersey would be disastrous. Meaning that a strange-but-possible New Jersey track could have low odds, but the threat to the city would still be significant. Similarly, in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, people are living behind a levee that everybody knows needs to be higher. The consequences of Gulf water coming over that levee could hardly be worse, so the threat gets high pretty quickly. Both situations require clear but provocative messaging to motivate people to do the right thing.
The key point is that public communications should be based on the threat, NOT on the odds of a bad outcome.
In a highly developed area like the New York/New Jersey coastline, the threat increases earlier than it does in places with fewer people and more hurricane experience. And when there’s a possibility that evacuations may have to be ordered, the communications process should start earlier yet.
Nobody wants to evacuate. Imagine leaving your home, your possessions, and your neighbors to head off into the unknown. It’s a wrenching decision, and people have to be lead through it. They need time to think about it, physically prepare for it, and mentally accept it. And that means that the message needs to be presented in stages, and strong, compassionate leadership is required.
New York City has the leadership, but they didn’t seem to understand the threat, and certainly they didn’t execute a thoughtful evacuation-communications plan. A proper plan would have had at least five steps… to bring people around to the reality that they had to evacuate:
1. Possibility. There is a possibility that an evacuation order will be issued as early as Saturday.
2. Likelihood. There is a higher likelihood that an evacuation order will be issued Sunday.
3. Certainty IF. An evacuation order will be ordered Sunday IF there is no change in the forecast.
4. Ordered. An evacuation is ordered effective tomorrow - Sunday.
5. Confirmed. I’m confirming that an evacuation order is in effect, which must be completed by 6 PM tonight.
In Sandy, the Possibility stage should have happened Thursday, 4 ½ days before the storm. The National Hurricane Center cone showed that most of the likely storm tracks would cause a life-threatening storm surge. The threat was high and getting higher, and the public messaging should have reflected that.
The Likelihood stage should have been Friday. By then the odds favored an extraordinary storm affecting the area.
The Certainty IF stage should have come Friday night or Saturday morning, the evacuation should have been Ordered on Saturday and Confirmed Sunday morning. ANY compression of that time scale would have resulted in a less successful evacuation, and New York City skipped the first four steps. Even the governors of New York and New Jersey skipped the first three.
Think about it. How long would it take you to leave your home? Would you just pack up the car and head out immediately because the mayor or governor said you should? Of course not. You’d want to understand the threat and be convinced. You’d need time. And the emergency-communications plans of the cities and states should provide it.
And there’s more. Part of the discussion from governors, mayors, and other officials beginning on Friday should have been: where to safely park a car (high ground, parking garages, etc.); when to evacuate elderly or electricity-dependent people (before everybody else); how to secure personal property (seal it in plastic bags/boxes as high in the house as possible); and other vital pieces of information. If any of this was dispensed, I didn’t hear it. And it should have been repeated over and over again.
Did the governments in the northeast not have a robust communications plan, did they fail to execute their plan, or did they not understand the threat? That’s the question.
As I and others have discussed, the combined alerts to the public from the local National Weather Service office in Upton, NY and the National Hurricane Center in Miami were not helpful on that Friday, when critical information should have been dispensed to the public. Whether that contributed to the information void from local leaders, we can’t say. But it certainly limited the focus and attention of the public.
At 4:09 AM Friday morning, the Upton office issued their Hazardous Weather Outlook bulletin, which they do every day. In part it said,
THERE IS INCREASING CONFIDENCE THAT THE TRI-STATE AREA WILL FEEL THE IMPACTS OF A DANGEROUS COASTAL STORM LATE THIS WEEKEND INTO EARLY NEXT WEEK. THIS INCLUDES THE POTENTIAL FOR HEAVY RAINFALL AND RESULTANT SIGNIFICANT URBAN...SMALL STREAM...AND RIVER FLOODING...HIGH WINDS CAUSING WIDESPREAD DOWNING OF TREES AND POWER LINES...AND SIGNIFICANT SHORELINE IMPACTS FROM COASTAL FLOODING AND BEACH EROSION.
That sounds pretty tepid given the super, mega, historic storm that was forecast to hit, but at least it was something. Though it was hidden away in an arcane bulletin that few people in the public even know about.
The Hazardous Weather Outlook continues:
PLEASE REFER TO THE NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER FOR THE LATEST FORECASTS ON SANDY...AND MONITOR THE LATEST NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE FORECASTS THROUGHOUT THE WEEK.
Well, first of all, this was issued Friday morning. What does “throughout the week” mean? Does it mean next week? No! It means right now. Second, they send you to the NHC advisory, which contains nothing about the threat of a storm surge in the northeast, but does say,
FOR STORM INFORMATION SPECIFIC TO YOUR AREA IN THE UNITED STATES...INCLUDING POSSIBLE INLAND WATCHES AND WARNINGS...PLEASE MONITOR PRODUCTS ISSUED BY YOUR LOCAL NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE FORECAST OFFICE.
They send you back to the local NWS office. It’s a Chinese fire-drill of non-information… with a monster storm heading toward the coast! And it’s the day that public officials should have had a discussion of a “Likely” evacuation with the public.
For completeness, in this blog that same morning I wrote,
For people near the coast, it's critical that you pay attention to local evacuation orders and emergency information. This storm, as forecast, will create dangerous and potentially life-threatening storm surge along hundreds of miles of coastline north of where the center comes ashore. Big storms move a lot of water, and this one is about as big as they come… this means transportation disruptions and widespread coastal damage.
I wrote that overnight Thursday night assuming that talk of evacuations and expected life-threatening storm effects would begin that Friday.
In fairness to the NWS and NHC, they were holding behind-the-scenes discussions with emergency-management offices in the northeast, so at some level there was awareness that a big storm was coming. But, clearly, the follow-up briefings for key decision-makers were not conveying the level of the threat.
Meanwhile, more boilerplate gobbledygook was distributed to the public. Here’s the forecast for New York City for Monday from the NWS Upton office that was issued that Friday morning:
.MONDAY...RAIN LIKELY. RAIN MAY BE HEAVY AT TIMES. WINDY WITH HIGHS IN THE UPPER 50S. CHANCE OF RAIN 70 PERCENT.
.MONDAY NIGHT...RAIN LIKELY. RAIN MAY BE HEAVY AT TIMES. WINDY WITH LOWS IN THE UPPER 40S. CHANCE OF RAIN 70 PERCENT.
Does that sound like the storm of the century is coming? It sounds like there’s a 70 percent chance of a nasty day, not that the ocean was going to rise up and swallow the coastline. I could clog your computer with more examples of how the communications system failed, but you get the point.
The bottom line is, the National Weather Service needs an entirely new way of thinking about mega events, so they aren’t trapped by a boilerplate, one-size-fits-all set of rules. There needs to be a plan for extreme situations like Sandy that require public awareness and response prior to the traditional two-day time frame.
For Sandy, the sequence might have worked like this:
• Thursday – a “pre-watch” alert is included in the advisory that says an earlier-than-normal Hurricane Watch will be issued for the northeast on Friday if forecast trends continue because of the unusual and extraordinary threat.
• Friday – A Hurricane Watch is issued.
• Saturday – A Hurricane Warning is issued.
• Sunday – A Hurricane Emergency is issued.
All of this would be done by the National Hurricane Center, of course. Whatever rules and fuzzy logic that say the NHC can’t issue a Hurricane Warning or Storm Surge Warning at the same time that the local National Weather Service office issues Coastal Flood Warnings or any other alert need to be swept away. In addition, the mayors, governors, and emergency managers need a robust superstorm communications plan that leads the public through the event to get the best possible response.
The bottom line... every state, county, city, and agency needs a Superstorm Plan for extraordinary situations that the standard operating procedures don’t cover.
A lot of this isn’t news to the National Hurricane Center. They’ve been thinking about ways to do things better for a long time. Now Sandy should bring some of the ideas to fruition.
And more good news. The government’s assessment of its performance during Sandy is back on track. Recall that NOAA put together a team, which included a private meteorologist as co-chair, and then canceled the project. Although the cancelation was messy and smelled bad, it looks like there was a procedural screw up. I’m told that there are federal rules that prohibit people outside the government being involved – no doubt for security reasons – so a new team will do the assessment.
The new group will include representatives of multiple agencies including FEMA, so we can expect a thorough examination and an honest report on what happened, with recommendations for the future. We can’t get to that stage soon enough.