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Uncovering the Lessons of Sandy

By: Bryan Norcross , 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.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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9. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
4:01 AM GMT on December 03, 2012
bnorcross has created a new entry.
8. V26R
11:40 PM GMT on November 29, 2012
So Rocks,
Is the NHC responsible for issuing Hurricane
Watches/Warnings for any Coastal US area or not?
Please explain to me why there were no Hurricane Watches or Warnings issued for the NJ/ NYCLI area then?
The "Guy on the street corner" had no say in what happened
They (like myself) were victims of a Brakdown in Government protocol, Starting with the NHC right down to the local level of Mayor Bloombag screwing the Pooch
So don't lay any of that crap that they didn't listen when they were told to evacuate out here, I Lived it
and heard all of the news reports, did you?
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
7. Barefootontherocks
11:21 PM GMT on November 29, 2012
5. V26R 10:48 PM GMT on November 29, 2012
What weather forecasters are you talking about? NWS had this storm locked in. And it did just as they said it would do. Perhaps a communication breakdown occurred between there and government officials.
You wrote:
"Why didn't the NHC issue Tropical Storm Watches, Warnings, Upgrades to Hurricane Watches and Warnings only and I quote from their Advisories
that we are leaving the Watches to be issued by the Local NWS Stations for the local areas?
This was a total ClusterF&%$ (Fill in the Blank)"

This was not the NHC's unilateral decision and they're on record as saying they would like to have handled the warnings differently. It'll all come out in the wash and someone's head could roll. NWS might end up the scapegoat.

Seems like a lot of people from the guy on the neighborhood street corner to some in the high levels of government don't want to acknowledge what happened was this: A big storm came in at a good angle to cause lots of damage to a heavy human population and complex infrastructure. Humans don't like feeling powerless.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
6. V26R
10:57 PM GMT on November 29, 2012
By The Way Bryan,
How much you want to bet that the Critique of the NHCs actions for Sandy will never happen, or if it does, let alone get released to Public eyes?

I hope and pray that Someone up top learned their lession at all of these peoples expense for the next time this happens ( And Im not a Global Warming Freak)
but this area has been LONG over due for s Strike
by a major storm so it will happen again sooner or later, and I hope Im not around for it
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
5. V26R
10:48 PM GMT on November 29, 2012
Bryan, Thanks for telling it like it is
As for your question about The Emergency Workers
making such unwise decisions
Let me tell you this as a resident of Tottenville, Staten Island and one of those persons who are considered esential personel, There was a major breakdown in communications as well as decision making from the very start right at the top
From Mayor Bloombags first press conference about
the upcoming storm telling people not to evacuate
because last time Upstate got hit harder than we did down here so its better to stay at home and then try telling and convincing a couple of million people
that "Hey I was wrong" with less than 24 hours before
the storm is expected to hit that they have to evacuate, Where are they suppost to go and how?
Why the heck (and I am trying to stay calm and keep my composure) Why didn't the NHC issue Tropical Storm Watches, Warnings, Upgrades to Hurricane Watches and Warnings only and I quote from their Advisories
that we are leaving the Watches to be issued by the Local NWS Stations for the local areas?
This was a total ClusterF&%$ (Fill in the Blank)
from the very begining and all of these hotshot Politicians and Weather Forecasters know they Screw'd the Pooch (Im being nice) and plain and simple it was a Major Miracle that many more peole did not loose their lives from this System.
Sorry now to answer your Question, The First Responders were simply following orders. They heard their "Boss" Mayor Bloombag, BTW he is no longer elegible to run for office, so he doesn't give a Ratsbutt(Im being nice again) about anything except
banning 32 oz sodas and saving NYC from being over weight and making a bundle on 30oz plastic cuts that his company will be selling to all of the major distributors to avoid that 32oz ban) Sorry I got side
tracked) They heard Bloombag state that it wasn't going to be a Hurricane and it wasn't going to be as bad as our Previous experience with last years Hurricane Irene, so they figured, hey He's gotta know something, right?
WRONG! Whoever the idiot who was feeding him weather intel should be shot and then hanged in Times Square for all to see
Hope that answers your questions,
Let me know if you want any more insight from someone who went into hand to hand cambat with Sandy that
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
4. RTSplayer
2:25 PM GMT on November 29, 2012
I read this and I'm shocked.

I realized there must have been significant mis-communication, but I didn't realize the misinformation, or else just stupidity, was that bad so that even the emergency workers did the wrong things.

How is it that firefighters could make such unwise decisions?

Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
3. Barefootontherocks
7:15 PM GMT on November 22, 2012
Thankful to be Together on this fourth Thursday of November.

Happy Turkey Day, bnorcross.

Can we really put Humpty together? - click and drag pieces.

provided by flash-gear.com
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
2. originalLT
12:25 AM GMT on November 20, 2012
Very well said, Jerseycityjoan. On a simple level, I believe the "in-action" of people to protect themselves boils down to two things, or syndromes,--first, the "crying wolf" syndrome, ---too may times in the past, a storm has been over-hyped, very little happens, and the people do not believe what they are being told, because nothing bad happened from previous storms or storm. Second, there is the syndrome,- "it won't happen to me". People think they are immune to harm, it's not going to happen to them., maybe someone else, a neighbor, a friend, more likely a stranger, but it's not going to happen to me. Having said this, maybe Sandy will be a wake-up call for these people who think they are immune from hurt. Un fortunately, "Time" will probably let them forget any valuable lessons they might have learned.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
1. jerseycityjoan
11:14 PM GMT on November 19, 2012
Thank you so much for this.

Please keep us informed.

Sandy is very complex: as a storm, how it affected people and in deciding how we should change future behavior and policies based on what happened.

For example, there's the leadup, the Storm itself and its aftermath. All of these, separately and combined, will give millions of people who live on or near the coastline many things to think about that they don't want think about. That goes for individuals, government officials and businesses.

There are also additional considerations, such as zoning and climate change, that hover over everything.

We as a people and our elected representatives seem unwilling to take on issues of this magnitude.

I am hoping that the scientists will do their best to set out the facts, future implications and their recommendations exactly as they see them, without compromise or fear of consequences. That is all we can ask of them.

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