Hurricane Sandy Assessment – The Rest of the Story

By: Bryan Norcross , 2:03 AM GMT on May 20, 2013

NOAA’s self-assessment of how they did during Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy came out last week – a thoughtful and compelling piece of work produced in a compressed amount of time. The document goes on for 50+ pages, plus a summary (link below). It’s full of evidence, analysis, and conclusions that anyone involved with communications during hurricanes should read and take to heart. Dr. Louis Uccellini, the new top guy at the National Weather Service, has already said that they are going to move on the recommendations. A hopeful sign.

The yin and yang of it was that the Sandy forecasts from the National Hurricane Center were excellent, but the forecast-communications process was confusing. In fact, the dominant theme in the document was confusion. The word came up 20 times, in one form or the other, and the idea many more times than that.

If you read my blogs during and after Sandy, you know I wholeheartedly agree with this analysis. In spite of thousands of highly skilled people in the National Weather Service, emergency management, and throughout the weather-forecast communications system going full tilt, the information reaching mayors, emergency managers, broadcasters, and coastal residents was at times unclear, conflicting, and hard to find. In short, the system let us down.

The dramatic and heroic personal appeal to state officials and the public by the Meteorologist-in-Charge at the NWS Mt. Holly office is called out in the report. His call to action, no doubt, had a significant and positive impact on the New Jersey response. Also mentioned is the National Hurricane Center reaching out directly to the New York City Office of Emergency Management after Mayor Bloomberg went on TV that Saturday and exhibited a clear misunderstanding of the threat facing the city.

Both actions were examples of dedicated people inside of NOAA stepping up and doing what needed to be done… outside of the system. But these actions are also prima facia evidence that, overall, the NWS communications system wasn’t working. The magnitude of the threat was not hitting home. Neither action would have been necessary if NOAA’s hurricane-threat communications system had been delivering the message with the intensity and clarity that the situation required. The assessment report lists a number of logical steps to standardize, simplify, and centralize critical information. There’s now a clear path to progress.

Another messaging controversy during Sandy, of course, came from the National Weather Service’s decision NOT to issue hurricane warnings for the coastline north of North Carolina. The communications issues that ensued from that decision are well discussed in the report, and action has already been taken by the National Hurricane Center to keep it from happening again. But it’s worth calling out the bottom line: In a complicated communications environment, the last thing you want to do is to spin up a controversy when you have no way to control it. It’s not clear that the NWS, and the other public officials involved, understood that fundamental communications rule when the decision was made.

Politicians know this rule well, of course. During a campaign, anything that takes a candidate off-message is a bad thing. During the weekend before Sandy hit, every minute a broadcaster was talking about why there was no hurricane warning was a confusion-inducing lost opportunity. But, the NHC was in a box; the rules and systems didn’t account for a Sandy scenario. I think in retrospect they had a couple of options that would have worked out better, but there's no way to know for sure.

And that gets us to where my thinking diverges from the assessment report… mainly in three areas.

First, the report endorses the current NOAA thinking that distributing more graphical and text data on the web, through social media, and via mobile phones is a key part of the path to better communications. But, this idea is contrary to the evidence presented elsewhere in the report. According to multiple surveys, about 90% of the people affected by Sandy named television as their “source of the most recent (storm) information”. This number hasn’t changed significantly in decades of post-storm studies.

So why, in the age of Twitter and Facebook and easy communications, do people still rely on TV? It’s simple. No non-expert, which means almost nobody, is going to make a critical decision based on a piece of data: i.e. a text message or a graphic. Before you make the monumental decision to leave your home and possessions behind, you want somebody you trust to explain why you have to do it. You want to look them in the eye and know it’s the truth.

My conclusion is that NOAA should follow the recommendations of the report and clean up the mess of conflicting forecast-delivery formats, including the treasure hunt that was required during Sandy to get the full picture of the threat from a myriad of government websites. The National Weather Service needs a well-understood way to distribute a clear message. But, instead of spending valuable resources expanding social media and mobile-phone outreach, they should concentrate on improving the message through the most important communications path by far: television.

Which gets me to the second place I think the report goes a bit off track. The idea has developed that we’ll uncover the best way to communicate with the public if social scientists ask enough questions. What color should the map be? How big should the text be? How do users respond to red versus blue? In my opinion, this path will never lead to the answer.

Now, I love my social-science friends, and I think that understanding the answers to these questions is valuable work. But if that were all it took to understand how to motivate people, the TV networks wouldn’t have to cancel dozens of expensive programs every year because nobody watches. They could simply ask people what they want to see and produce those shows.

The flaw is that we start the investigation by assuming that we need more maps, so we ask social scientists to help us make the best maps possible. But, suppose that the biggest part of the problem is not related to the maps? You need mass-communications experts to sort this out, not behavioral scientists. The people that build systems to craft, control, and disseminate messages have the expertise we need.

I’m sure that any holistic solution will include packaging maps and data to make them user-friendly and distributing them over as many channels as possible. But I’m equally sure, that there is much more to the problem, and world-class communications expertise will be key to finding the solution.

Finally, I take issue with idea in Recommendation 13 that defines 48 hours before tropical-storm force winds as the magic hour when the NWS should start alerting people to the storm-surge threat. In fairness, the report says “at least 48 hours”, but in any case, that’s too late. It takes at least 3 days, and ideally 4 days, for a coastal population to mentally and physically prepare to evacuate.

Just the mental preparation is ideally a two-day process. The messages might be:

• Day 1 – “if the forecast is correct, an evacuation will be ordered in 2 days. Start thinking about what you would do to protect yourselves and your property”.
• Day 2 – “if there are no changes in the forecast by tomorrow, an evacuation order will be issued in the morning”.

The early messaging should include tips on where to park your car, what to do with valuable possessions, and other instructions that were never a part of the pre-Sandy conversation because they jumped right to the “get out” stage.

This doesn’t mean that specific storm surge numbers are required days in advance, but qualitative language can be very helpful. In the case of Sandy, a statement like, “the odds increasingly favor a higher storm surge from Sandy than we saw from Irene, and perhaps significantly higher” would have made a big difference. And that statement could have been made Thursday, more than 4 days before peak impact.

Every storm is different, but there is almost always important qualitative information to convey before the quantitative forecasts are released. An improved communications system should include a high-profile mechanism for conveying that information so the evacuation-communications process can begin earlier as well.

All of this is only possible with enough people to do the job, of course. The NOAA assessment report recommends expanding the storm-surge team at the NHC and filling critical empty slots throughout the National Weather Service. Fixing this will require a willingness to reexamine how resources are allocated within the NWS, but in the end, Congress has to step up. We’re talking about a nano-drop in the congressional budget. Let’s get on with it.

NOAA link:

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12. progov
6:46 AM GMT on October 17, 2013
Member Since: October 16, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
11. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
4:48 AM GMT on August 24, 2013
bnorcross has created a new entry.
10. Grothar
2:21 AM GMT on July 08, 2013
I agree, about time you started blogging on these systems. We promise we won't tear you apart like we do to each other on the blog.
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 75 Comments: 30274
9. opal92nwf
7:18 PM GMT on July 07, 2013
Hope you will be blogging on the tropics as they are heating up now Mr. Norcross!!
Member Since: May 12, 2012 Posts: 15 Comments: 3316
8. peregrinepickle
7:31 PM GMT on June 15, 2013
If anyone really wants their head to explode, including veteran meteorologists, just take a look at this 2010 statement from the NHC "clarifying" storm terminology

I think that the whole point is that from the public's standpoint, SIMPLICITY is the key. With the emergence of hybrid storms and more intense events due to the changed conditions (like the blocking high that was sitting over Greenland, steering Sandy west) driven by global warming, I think a whole new format should be developed for Atlantic Basin events. Something more along the lines of the tornado grading system, although of course, not based on after-the-fact damage. A storm would be, for ex. a 1 through 5, but not assigned any tropical, extratropical of post-tropical status except as a secondary clarifier (which is really not critical, as the public is not all that interested in what latitude a storm has reached - they want to know which stretch of coastline it is closest to and how much damage it may do!). Sandy could have been described later in its evolution as a winter hybrid 3 (for example), meaning it had taken on additional "dimensions," but the main theme for forecasts would still be the location and potential for damage. A friend in southwestern CT said she almost didn't evacuate because she heard the term "post tropical" and figured the danger was over! I explained the forecast jargon to her, and fortunately, she went to higher ground!
Member Since: March 31, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 6
7. mikatnight
10:21 PM GMT on June 11, 2013
I agree with you wholeheartedly Mr. Norcross. Just navigating the NHC page is tedious. One page for the graphics and current position, another page for the 'Discussion', and yet still another to find out how big the eye is. It goes along with the conference Dr. Masters was at yesterday; scientists just have a hard time communicating with laymen. I feel there's hope though. Scientists are now using experts in communications to help them get their message out. Just like always...kick sand in someone's face long enough, and they'll eventually figure out which way the wind blows. Seems like it would be easier just to ask you - I mean it's not like you haven't written about it - but the wheels of progress do grind ever on...
Member Since: October 18, 2005 Posts: 7 Comments: 3052
6. Barefootontherocks
2:35 PM GMT on June 09, 2013
This "Don't worry, everything will be fine - probably." meme sabotages the idea that tornado warnings should always be taken seriously. Mention the worst disaster to strike - and then minimize the potential danger. Why?

Because, statistically speaking, it is the truth. Very easy in hindsight to criticize something like that, but that is what people (especially those not involved in the immediacy) do when natural disaster strikes. Rather than seeing the positive - in this case, EF5 damage at a school where NO fatalities occurred from a tornado that spun up quicker than the average bear and gained violent intensity almost immediately... and EVERYONE knew what to do and did it right - you/they want to lay blame.

1% is almost a non-zero risk. 2% - meh. Keep an eye on it to see if it gets upgraded, but that's it. On May 20, 2013 there was a 10% risk over Moore and other areas of central OK. When the watch came out, the EF2-plus risk was stated as "low."

Am I blaming the SPC? No. I understand the capricious factor inherent in severe weather. Besides, a low risk is a risk. And I don't apply a "hurricane watching" mentality to understanding or preparing for potential severe weather.

100% chance Oklahomans live every day understanding their severe weather risk and hoping they will not be hit hard.

100% chance they pay attention, know what to do, and pitch in with rescue immediately when a tornado occurs.

0% chance anyone who has not lived in central OK understands the above.
Member Since: April 29, 2006 Posts: 173 Comments: 21589
5. BaltimoreBrian
10:40 PM GMT on May 23, 2013
Now that I think about it I'm not aware of any hurricane in the USA causing a large number of fatalities in which the majority were not caused by drowning.

Are you aware of any hurricane in the USA with a lot of fatalities (100 ) in which the majority of deaths did not result from drowning? Is Sandy also unique in that regard?
Member Since: August 9, 2011 Posts: 27 Comments: 13577
4. BaltimoreBrian
10:10 PM GMT on May 23, 2013
The CDC issued a new report today detailing the causes of death from hurricane Sandy.

I found the 1/3 figure surprisingly low with all the coastal and inland flooding.

Drowning Caused One-Third of Deaths From Hurricane Sandy
Member Since: August 9, 2011 Posts: 27 Comments: 13577
3. Bryan Norcross , Hurricane Specialist
1:59 AM GMT on May 22, 2013
If the NYC OEM had understood and internalized the threat as early as it was evident to a lot of us, a lot of things would have been better, including the Mayor's message. The Sandy report didn't analyze this well enough, IMO. Not to blame at this point, but to be sure it can't happen again.

On the Moore statement today... I agree. I didn't like it at all. First, if they really have a 1-2% EVERY DAY in the spring. That's a LOT. Second, you don't ever want to play down the tornado threat in as tornado-prone place - central OK - as exists. I guess they want to say that Moore isn't cursed and that people live successfully with the threat that they have. And they're right, but didn't say it well.
Member Since: August 24, 2012 Posts: 48 Comments: 8
2. AnjFabian
3:37 PM GMT on May 21, 2013
You may be interested in this post. It's the City of Moore's official tornado preparedness post. It has some serious flaws in it.


"May 3rd was an extremely unique event weatherwise. There has never been such a strong and violent tornado ever in the recorded history of the City of Moore. Statistically, there is only about a 1-2% chance of a tornado - of any size - striking Moore on any particular day during the spring. But of all tornados that do strike us (again, not very many historically), there's only a less than 1% chance of it being as strong and violent as what we experienced on May 3rd. Put another way, there's a very small likelihood of Moore being struck by a tornado. There's an extremely smaller chance of Moore experiencing another "May 3rd" type event. If we are struck again, it will very likely be by a much less intense storm."

This "Don't worry, everything will be fine - probably." meme sabotages the idea that tornado warnings should always be taken seriously. Mention the worst disaster to strike - and then minimize the potential danger. Why?
Member Since: May 21, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
1. Astrometeor
2:31 AM GMT on May 20, 2013
Thanks for the post Mr. Norcross.

My opinion, while the issue on whether or not to give hurricane warnings to New Jersey rested on a technicality, I do not think it would have made a difference in the public perception of the storm, what with the fantastic job of hype-ness TWC and yourself did. (not saying that hyping was bad here) The time spent on explaining all of this could have been lessened, but at some point there is only so much information an official can discern and send off to the public. Although, I would like to see a report on how Mayor Bloomberg got confused on the severity of the approaching storm, the information at that point was showcasing a storm much worse than what he had talked about in that particular press conference.
Member Since: July 2, 2012 Posts: 111 Comments: 11974

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