A Year After Sandy - What Did We Learn?

By: Bryan Norcross , 11:19 AM GMT on October 23, 2013

A year ago today my post was called “Sandy and the Fork in the Road”. The computer models hadn’t settled in yet, but we were getting nervous. One of those forks was really bad, and it was the one forecast by the Euro, the computer model that had been the most accurate for the past few years. We understood well that a storm anything like the one that the model was portraying would be a disaster of huge proportions.

Neither part of the Sandy scenario was extraordinary on its own. Late October hurricanes move up from the Caribbean on a regular basis: Michelle in 2001 and Wilma in 2005 come to mind. And, strong and kinky jet streams develop nor’easters along the East Coast and sling them back over land with dramatic results extending far inland. What today we call the Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950 caused more damage than any storm in history to that point – hurricane or nor’easter – when it took an oddball track toward the west. But, the record book doesn’t show any instance of these two extreme events happening at the same time. It was a bizarrely and extraordinarily coincidental that Sandy and the jet stream came together to create a superstorm.

So what did we learn?

We learned that modern computer models are stunningly accurate when the weather pattern is well established, as it was in the week or more before Sandy hit. We also learned that our ability to inform and motivate people, even when the forecast is straightforward and their life is threatened, is somewhere between limited and non-existent.

In spite of dedicated professionals from one end of the forecasting and communications system to the other working flat out, surveys done during and after the storm in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast show that a vast number of people didn’t get message, or even the spirit of the message.

We also now know, of course, that various government agencies were evaluating the bulletins and briefings and coming to conclusions ranging from “the worst storm ever” to “not too bad”. If the system doesn’t get decision makers on the same page, who in theory have thought this stuff out in some detail prior to the event, what hope does the average guy who’s lived in his house near the water for 30 years have to understand the threat? Little or none.

The whole brouhaha about the lack of a Hurricane Warning from the National Hurricane Center turned out to be noisy nonsense as far as the public was concerned. Weather weenies know that the words “hurricane warning” have a deep, intrinsic meaning implying some level of peril for people in the way of the storm. But hurricane and warning are two words that have meaning to anybody who can speak English. And the television was plenty full of agitation and interruptions in the days before Sandy hit. People knew the storm was coming. They were plenty warned, in a literal sense.

But, about 80% of the people near coast did NOT get the message that the ocean might rise up, ruin their house, and threaten their lives, according to research done by Dr. Jay Baker from Florida State and a team of researchers. You don’t have to go any further into the numbers to realize that the system is fundamentally broken.

Now, the missing Hurricane-Watch/Warning probably did enter into the misdiagnosis of the threat by decision makers in New York City, based on the statements we heard. But they had a National Weather Service meteorologist embedded with them throughout the event, so the cause and effect are murky. In the future, it’s critical that the threat evaluation process in key government entities is standardized and structured. The research is clear: the most important motivating factor for people in evacuation zones is storm information coming directly from elected officials. There is no margin for error or misinterpretation by these leaders or their agencies.

If the governor of New Jersey and the Mayor of New York City (let alone all of the other leaders and emergency managers in a region) are not on the same page in terms of their characterization of the threat, confusion will ensue. Confusion is the enemy of action. We’ve known that for years.

Fixing this is going to be very difficult, and maybe impossible. It goes to the roots of the American system. The foundation of our country is a well-founded mistrust of imperial government. The thing is, during a big emergency, you kind of want somebody who knows what they are doing in charge. These two ideas are in conflict.

In other countries, the national government takes over the communications process and, essentially forces everybody to get on the same page. They can do this because the main TV and radio networks are government owned or supported. We don’t have an option like that, and I’m not proposing we want one. But we do have to find a way within the American system and philosophy to establish consistent threat-evaluation systems and communications structures at key agencies, states, counties and cities. Cut the confusion, unify the message, and maybe we’ve got a shot.

Storm Surge Forecasts

A couple of other thoughts about communicating with the public. The National Hurricane Center is going to introduce a Storm Surge Watch and Warning into the mix of alerts that will come out for landfalling hurricanes. I can’t come up with any single better idea, but it’s annoyingly tricky business. Storm surge forecasts are extremely difficult to put into words. You can get hit by a hurricane and not get storm surge, and you can get storm surge and not get the hurricane. And, if the storm-surge forecast is 4 to 8 feet, the obvious question is, “above what”? While there's a scientifically correct answer, explaining it to the average guy in the average house is a slog.

Disentangling hurricanes from storm surge, while correct in reality, is going to be an extra challenge for elected officials who jump in when the storm is coming to be the local communicator-in-chief. Remember, it’s not the websites or the smartphone apps that get people moving. It’s a trusted voice explaining the threat and telling you what to do. You want to look another human in the eye and decide if he/she is telling you the truth about the threat to you and your family… and then you might leave home. Maps and text will never replace a human-to-human connection.

There are other challenging aspects to communicating storm-surge forecasts as well, but the good news is that a lot of hard work is going on in the National Weather Service and at the National Hurricane Center to build a new structure for storm-surge threat communications. They are working with social scientists to fine-tune the maps and messages.

So how much better will the system work next time? A bit, I imagine. But my take is that we are building new floors on an old building with a crumbling foundation. More products and maps will not, in the end, make a better communications system. Communications is fundamentally art, not science. We have to start with that premise if there’s going to be real progress.

Look at it this way, if Steve Jobs were designing a system to communicate a hurricane threat, how would he do it? NOTHING like the system we have now, I guarantee you. He dealt in the art of a product, from design to communications. Advertising agencies do this kind of thing. Maybe that’s a place to start.

The Meteorology

On the meteorology side, Sandy provided additional evidence that a modern computer model – in this case the European Center model – can make an astonishingly accurate forecast more than a week before landfall. The conclusion that the Euro has the answer – effectively assimilating satellite data into a robust model initialization scheme – isn't bulletproof, however. The Euro had a spectacular failure earlier in 2012 during Tropical Storm Debby. In addition, the Canadian GEM model, not generally regarded as a top-tier tropical model, also had the right idea eight days in advance of Sandy’s landfall, and the U.S. GFS model was slightly more accurate on average in the first 72 hours of track forecasts for the season as a whole.

So no model is perfect, but there is sufficient evidence of success with the European scheme that additional research and resources applied to computer modeling and satellite-data acquisition will likely continue to produce better forecasts. But, there’s a but.

The meteorologists don’t want to hear it, and I don’t like it either, but the truth is, the quality of the meteorology is so far ahead of the quality of threat communications in the U.S. that progress in forecasting is becoming less and less relevant. Scientists tend to think that more information on a smartphone is the answer, while a family in a house near the coast just wants somebody they know and trust to explain what’s happening and what they should do to stay safe. There’s a science AND art problem here, and it’s going to take both to design and build a new communications system from the ground up.

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12. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
9:06 PM GMT on January 29, 2014
bnorcross has created a new entry.
11. bigtrucker
5:21 PM GMT on November 20, 2013
Very well written article Mr.Norcross.
Not sure if Hurricane warnings would have made much of a difference. Warm core or not storms of this magnitude will always be problematic.
Getting the word out to people that a devistating storm is imminant is something that really needs to be improved upon. I told many people in the Milford CT area that a very dangerous storm was on the way and the response from most was that it wouldn't be a big deal..Well, turns out that the walnut beach area and Broadway (Devon section of Milford) were devistated
Member Since: January 9, 2006 Posts: 80 Comments: 6119
9. DaveFive
11:43 AM GMT on November 10, 2013
Hello Bnorcross, I'm Dave from San Jose, CA. your weather info is very interesting.
Member Since: August 16, 2013 Posts: 9 Comments: 311
8. V26R
11:26 AM GMT on November 04, 2013
Honestly I think it would have made a difference in the way people responded to the storm
The way Mayor Bloombag was talking it up that it was going to be an "Upstate" event and all we were going to get was some wind and maybe some rain really screwed the situation up and also waiting until the very last minute to declare an emerency is going to take alot of his crediability away
Like I said previously in Mr. Norcross' blog Im not sure who was whispering in Bloombags ear, but Bloombag really screwed up the situation badly. Unlike Gov Christy from NJ who took the initiave in saying it was going to be really bad.
I have to agree with you about getting the comms right and soon, but like you said, there will always be those people who said, Oh I rode out Camile back in the day down on the Gulf and that wasn't so bad so Im sticking this one out etc... and those people will be the ones we are picking up face down in a puddle or digging their remains out of a downed building.
I really hope someone picks up the ball and soon before this whole situation occurs once again and alot of good people get hurt or killed!!!
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1939
7. Astrometeor
8:49 PM GMT on November 03, 2013
I'm not sure if hurricane warnings would've made a difference in Sandy. After Irene a year earlier (VT was the one that got hurt there and was dreading Sandy, I'm sure), I think issuing a hurricane warning would've been good for some, but would've been met with laughter by others.

On Severe T-storm warnings, I do think those are over-issued. I've seen countless storms warned here in Nashville, with very few that deserved the designation.

To fix the communication errors will have to be a national effort, with psychologists, communication experts, and meteorologists working together with leaders to form a plan.

But, unfortunately, I doubt we will ever be able to get it right. There are those who will never listen to anyone, their own arrogance and pride to strong.
Member Since: July 2, 2012 Posts: 112 Comments: 12353
6. V26R
4:31 PM GMT on November 03, 2013
Quoting 2. bnorcross:
Unfortunately, the NHC systems and procedures weren't set up to deal with the Sandy-type situation. It's was an oddball thing. But, they moved at light-speed to fix it... so that won't happen again.

Brian, I'm not so sure they did fix here in okx land.
Just this past week with the passing of a sharp cold front,
okx issued Severe Thunder Storm Warnings for it when it passed thru. The wording in it did include that there were high winds and heavy rain associated with no lightning detected, but the publics opinion of a severe thunder storm are one with a lot of lightning and heavy rains/winds. Even the local radio stations were critizing the nws for issuing these warnings. So somehow the publics definations of these watches/warnings needs to be updated.
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1939
5. V26R
4:22 PM GMT on November 03, 2013
RLk the problem associating high wind watches/warnings with systems such as Sandy are that (atleast here in the NYC area) the local NWS (okx) uses them a lot and people will continue to be confused as to the severity of the storm system that will effect the given area. The powers that be really must come up with some type of solution regarding when either tropical, post tropical, non tropical (either winter or summer) systems and the needed watch/warnings. Unfortunatly here in the NYC area with Sandy both the government officials and the local emergency management officials dropped the ball and never owned up to the fact that they were compairing Hurricane Irene with Sandy.
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1939
4. MrMixon
4:29 PM GMT on October 24, 2013
Thanks for the thoughtful post, Mr. Norcross.

I think you're spot-on with your assertion that everyone involved in public hazard communications should spend some time thinking "How would Steve Jobs do this?"

Hazard communications is an "art", as you say, and scientists may not be the most qualified people to design hazard communications systems. People with aesthetic minds need to be involved. People with psychology and sociology expertise should be involved too.

To some extent, I think there is no one system that is always going to work. Daily visitors to a site like wunderground are generally pretty well tuned in to warnings and most of us appreciate the seriousness of those warnings... we even seek out additional information because we care so much about the weather. But, stubbornness, mistrust, and other aspects of human nature mean that some folks simply will never heed any type of warning you throw at them. Upgraded communications systems will do nothing for them. But, it's the folks in the middle who we should try to do better with... folks who would take action if they appreciated the full and true nature of the threat.
Member Since: March 26, 2006 Posts: 44 Comments: 1520
3. rlk
3:58 PM GMT on October 24, 2013
Yup, it was an exceedingly odd storm, and it's a bit difficult to second guess the actions of the folks on the firing line. But it isn't the first time that a storm has transitioned while remaining dangerous (think Irene, from just one year previous), and it's something I think should be given more thought.

The post-storm evaluation (http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/assessments/pdfs/Sandy 13.pdf) does discuss this, in recommendation 6 on page 28-29, which is good, but it doesn't strongly enough (in my view) confront the dichotomy between the meteorological assessment of the storm and how the population sees it. I think the directive in place needs to be focused more on minimizing confusion for the lay audience and less on the precise storm classification.

I've seen this problem in a different way, with severe thunderstorm watches issued in November in the northeast in the context of very dynamic storms producing a convective fine line that's driven by shear rather than instability. Situations like this have prevailing strong winds that may be at or just below high wind criteria, but there's concern that the fine line might briefly produce stronger, marginally severe gusts. In my view, the severe thunderstorm watch in this situation is confusing; the weather during the fine line (which sometimes lasts as little as 30 seconds) doesn't look anything like what people associate with a severe thunderstorm. It's simply an extremely heavy shower with maybe a bit more wind; there's rarely if ever any lightning of any kind, no hail, and no visibly towering thunderstorm. Again in this case, I think the decision making should be based on "what's it going to look like to the layperson", not "is the convection, free or forced, what's going to cause 58 MPH gusts". If it's going to look like a windy storm, warn it as such with a high wind warning even if the prevailing wind looks like it's going to be just under that.
Member Since: January 30, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 113
2. Bryan Norcross , Hurricane Specialist
3:31 PM GMT on October 24, 2013
Unfortunately, the NHC systems and procedures weren't set up to deal with the Sandy-type situation. It's was an oddball thing. But, they moved at light-speed to fix it... so that won't happen again.
Member Since: August 24, 2012 Posts: 64 Comments: 8
1. rlk
12:30 AM GMT on October 24, 2013
My own personal opinion is that the National Weather Service made a grave error deciding not to issue hurricane warnings north of 38N or thereabouts. Yes, technically Sandy lost enough tropical characteristics by shortly before landfall so that it did not meet the meterological definition of a hurricane. But from a public communications standpoint, "hurricane warning" carries connotations that "high wind warning" doesn't. And hurricane warning implies considerably stronger winds -- 75 MPH sustained -- than high wind warning, which only requires 40 MPH sustained (which is minimal tropical storm strength) or 58 MPH gusts. And whether the convection was sufficiently symmetric and concentrated, or whether the temperatures aloft were sufficiently warmer in the core than surrounding it, there was no practical import whatsoever. The weather was typical of a cat 1 hurricane and the storm surge at least cat 2 equivalent. The storm was previously a hurricane, and the way the forecasts and advisories were worded implied to me that the storm would be considerably weaker in the northeast than further south, which wasn't really expected to be the case.

I think that if a storm was ever a hurricane in the Atlantic basin and affected land (even without landfall) while at that intensity, tropical warnings in North America should be used even after post-tropical or extratropical transition until the maximum sustained wind falls below 58 MPH, which is storm force. If the storm falls below storm force, and later reintensifies as an extratropical (not just post-tropical, which implies partial tropical characteristics), then use high wind warnings.
Member Since: January 30, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 113

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