This is the official blog for Bryan Norcross, Hurricane Specialist at The Weather Channel.
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.
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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