This is the official blog for Bryan Norcross, Hurricane Specialist at The Weather Channel.
By: Bryan Norcross , 4:28 AM GMT on December 06, 2012
NOAA confirmed and then unconfirmed on Wednesday that they decided to redefine a Hurricane Warning… slightly. A report issued after last week’s annual NOAA Hurricane Meeting – where they review the past hurricane season and vote on improved policies – includes the new language. It defines a Hurricane Warning as:
An announcement that sustained winds of 74 mph or higher are expected somewhere within the (hurricane warning) area in association with a tropical, sub-tropical, or post-tropical cyclone. Because hurricane preparedness activities become difficult once winds reach tropical storm force, the warning is issued 36 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of tropical-storm-force winds. The warning can remain in effect when dangerously high water or a combination of dangerously high water and waves continue, even though winds may be less than hurricane force.
Why they did the confirmation double-dance is a mystery. Accuweather.com jumped the gun and released this small part of the document before an official NOAA press release was sent out. They got confirmation that it was accurate from folks at the National Hurricane Center, as did we at The Weather Channel. Then later in the day, NOAA in Washington chimed in and said, in effect, “stop the presses, it’s just a proposal”. Whatever.
Obviously, it’s an effort to do something in reaction to the communications boondoggle they created by not putting up Hurricane Watches and Warnings north of North Carolina when Hurricane Sandy was heading toward New Jersey. In any case, this is a good policy. It’s clear and it’s explicit. The problem is, it doesn't solve the problem.
The definition of a Hurricane Warning has been:
An announcement that hurricane conditions (sustained winds of 74 mph or higher) are expected somewhere within the (hurricane warning) area. Because hurricane preparedness activities become difficult once winds reach tropical storm force, the hurricane warning is issued 36 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of tropical-storm-force winds.
So the difference is that the new definition refers explicitly to “tropical, sub-tropical, and post-tropical cyclones”. And that the warning can stay up if a giant storm surge is going to smash the coast, even if the winds drop below the 74 mph threshold.
That’s all well and good, but it doesn't REQUIRE that a Hurricane Warning be issued during a Sandy-like situation. And the explanation section of the report goes to great lengths to justify the bonehead decision not to issue Hurricane Watches and Warnings in Sandy. It’s like they didn't live through the same storm we did.
Not only is it demonstrably bad communications policy – really smart people didn't get the message that a monster storm surge was going to cream the coastline – but it turned out to be bad meteorology.
“Hurricane conditions” were still occurring at 9:00 PM when Sandy’s center was 15 miles offshore of Atlantic City. The advisory from the NHC showed Sandy as a Post-Tropical Cyclone with sustained winds of 80 mph with gusts at JFK at 79 mph. Earlier in the evening, Islip, NY had 90 mph gusts. Those are “hurricane conditions” any day of the week.
It’s frustrating and disappointing that the NOAA report goes on and on defending the Sandy decisions. It was the worst communication debacle that I can remember from the National Weather Service. This report should have admitted that, and provided clear remedies so it never happens again.
The premise of their reasoning is that the Hurricane Warning would have to have been taken down if the Sandy made a meteorological transition from a hurricane to a post-tropical storm (a nor’easter). It predicts that a calamity of confusion would have overtaken people in the hurricane zone if that happened.
First of all, nobody would have been confused if they didn't confuse people. The messaging was in their control. They should have left up the Hurricane Warning until the threat was over. If the system wouldn't allow that, the report should have laid out a way to protect against the system ever again getting in the way of using the best tools to warn people of a disaster in the making.
Second, there really was no Plan B. After they decided to keep the National Hurricane Center out of the communications equation, they were left with the hodgepodge of alerts from the local National Weather Service offices, which nobody understands or knows where to find. The hodgepodge is NOT equivalent to a Hurricane Warning. Never was and never will be. Everybody but NOAA seems to know that.
I offer this quantitative proof. Hits on the NHC website: billions. Hits on the local NWS sites’ warning bulletins: not billions. My qualitative proof is that the people that run New York City didn’t get the message, and they had a local National Weather Service meteorologist embedded at emergency management. How much more proof do you need?
The fact is, local National Weather Service offices are not designed for monster hurricanes like Sandy. That’s what national centers like the NHC are for, and where the people with the most experience with hurricanes are working. That’s not to say that the meteorologists at the local NWS offices don’t work hard and aren’t extremely skilled. My experience is just the opposite. But, they don’t deal with hurricanes year in and year out, and they don’t have the tools to communicate. They don’t even have a Hurricane Warning.
It is NOT the case that a Hurricane Warning would have guaranteed the right response by local and state governments and by the people in harms way. A LOT went wrong throughout the warning and response system. But how do we begin to fix it if the smart people can’t look at what happened and admit it was a colossal screwup?
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