Government forecasters often play a largely behind-the scenes role, with most people getting their weather information from private entities like Accuweather and The Weather Channel.
But the Weather Service steps into the spotlight when it issues official watches and warnings during major storms or when it gets a big prediction wrong, as happened a few weeks ago with the major blizzard that ended up not hitting our area as had been expected.
In the wake of that mishap, the Weather Service has pledged to improve the way it communicates the uncertainty in its forecast models.
But that’s not the only area in need of improvement. More than two years after Sandy, the Weather Service continues to implement important reforms as a result of that historic storm.
What follows are 10 key lessons, highlighted both by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s internal assessment of the Weather Service’s performance as well as by outside critics. Ranging from communication breakdowns to budgetary problems to the need to develop better forecasting tools, many of these shortcomings have yet to be addressed.
1. Better mapping of storm surge threats
If you were to ask the average coastal resident what they should fear most from a hurricane or tropical storm, many people would mention the high winds, but forecasters say storm surge actually poses a much greater threat. The problem is that until recently, the Weather Service didn’t have the capability to produce easily understandable surge maps or graphics that they could share with local officials to help them prepare and plan evacuations. Having access to such materials would have made a big difference during Sandy, says Union Beach Emergency Management Coordinator Michael Harriot.
“We had tides that were 14 feet, and nobody anticipated that,” he said.
Officials in New York City’s Office of Emergency Management were similarly frustrated.
Recognizing the severity of this problem, the authors of NOAA’s post-Sandy service assessment listed this as the highest priority of their entire report, and they’ve since created experimental surge maps to predict just where the water will go in future storms. They’re also working on developing storm surge warnings for coastal and tidally-influenced rivers, and they’ve committed to providing more lead time for surge forecasts, so local officials can know what to expect at least 48 hours in advance.
2. Increased staffing of key positions
One of the challenges to delivering more detailed surge forecasts has been that the National Hurricane Center in Miami only has one forecaster who specializes in that field. The reason that’s worrisome is that it’s a specific and highly technical expertise, so even other forecasters can find it complicated and confusing if they’re not trained in that area. This severe shortage of staff “significantly limits service improvements,” NOAA’s report concluded, and it recommended hiring two additional surge forecasters to support 24/7 operations during severe storms.
Unfortunately, as a result of federal budget cuts, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, with overall staffing shortages at both the Hurricane Center and many local forecast offices reaching “critical” levels.
“These shortages make them vulnerable to failure during significant weather events when FEMA, emergency managers, media, and other important partners and the public depend on National Weather Service offices the most,” the report’s authors wrote.
If budgetary constraints prevent such positions from being filled, they added, the agency should make it clear to the Obama administration that such vacancies could result in reduced levels of service and an inability to effectively deliver warnings during major storms in the future.
3. Repairs to broken equipment
Although not mentioned in NOAA’s report, the Weather Service’s forecasting efforts have long been hampered by aging and malfunctioning equipment, the result of years of budget cuts. For example, the Hurricane Center’s quick scatterometer — a satellite-based tool that measures wind speeds near the ocean’s surface — broke down in 2009 and has yet to be fixed. Forecasters are now relying on a European satellite, but it’s much slower and less sophisticated.
Likewise, a series of polar-orbiting satellites that allow the Weather Service to conduct forecast modeling for storms like Sandy are falling apart and are in danger of failing any day — and they could take years to replace.
As author Kathryn Miles noted in her book “Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy,” the U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere has called the situation “a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.”
Closer to home, Gary Szatkowski — the head meteorologist at the Weather Service’s Mount Holly, NJ, office — says that several important weather buoys were broken for several years.
“It’s tough when you’re forecasting and you only have four or five data points along the New Jersey section of the Atlantic coast to tell you what the current winds and seas are, and then you lose one or two of them,” he said. “That becomes a challenge, and we worry about that. The folks who maintain the buoys wanted to get out there and fix it. It’s just that for a point in time there, they didn’t have funds to do it.”
4. Changes to protocols for hurricane warnings
Sandy presented a unique situation when forecasters saw that it was weakening and would likely be downgraded from a hurricane to a post-tropical cyclone shortly before making landfall. Long-standing operational procedures as well as technical limitations within the National Weather Service dictated that in such a situation, the responsibility for issuing watches and warnings would be handed off from the National Hurricane Center in Miami to local forecast offices such as the ones in Mount Holly, NJ, and Upton, NY (although the NHC would continue posting “advisories”).
To ease the transition, the local offices started issuing nontropical watches and warnings well ahead of time, and NOAA released a statement announcing the transition, but some emergency management officials were still confused and caught off-guard. There were also concerns that although the storm remained powerful and dangerous, local forecast offices wouldn’t have the megaphone to reach as many people as the NHC.
To remedy the problem, the Weather Service instituted a major internal change in early 2013 so the Hurricane Center will now be able to keep hurricane watches and warnings in effect for severe storms that start as hurricanes, even if they’re later downgraded. Going forward, the NHC will be the principal point of contact responsible for forecasting such events, easing the burden on local forecast offices and avoiding any discontinuity in service or change in communication patterns.
5. More easily-understandable language
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, NOAA has acknowledged that the scientific terminology and classifications the National Weather Service used can be confusing to residents and lead them to misinterpret the potential risks they face.
Rather than focus on the specific wording, they say, future forecasts should instead emphasize when and where the storm impacts will occur and what hazards they pose. Advisories should be clear and concise, using nontechnical text and graphics to better convey information in an easy-to-read format.
6. Better use of technology to disseminate weather advisories
During Sandy, many people who accessed Weather Service websites found them overly complicated and complained of difficulties locating vital information. Banners, headlines and fonts were inconsistent between different pages, so it was hard to catch the public’s eye, and some sites crashed at the peak of the storm. In addition, not all Weather Service sites were easily accessible on mobile devices.
NOAA is calling on the Weather Service to make its websites more user-friendly. “The most important message needs to be more obvious,” the agency said, while also calling for backup redundancies in case of outages, increased use of social media, and creation of a central gateway like “storm.gov” for use during large and significant storms.
7. Increased training for forecasters
Lack of adequate training has long been recognized as a problem within the Weather Service. A service assessment conducted after Hurricane Irene in 2011 noted that the Hurricane Center offers three weeklong hurricane preparedness courses for forecasters each winter, but the classes often have empty seats as a result of cuts to travel budgets.
“Despite the significance of hurricane impacts, there is a lack of operational experience working tropical cyclone events,” the report said, adding that periodic training is essential to keep forecasters’ skills up to par.
The Sandy assessment reiterated those concerns, especially when it comes to coastal inundation (storm surge) expertise.
Furthermore, it called for local forecast office personnel to receive training to learn how to better communicate with decision makers and the public during extreme weather events.
8. Hiring more behavioral and social scientists
The warnings and advisories forecasters issue for severe storms are only as good as the extent to which the public is willing to listen to them and take the appropriate precautions, such as evacuating from vulnerable coastal areas.
But the science of how people perceive risk and decide whether to adjust their behavior is complex and dependent upon a variety of factors including past experience, advice from family and friends, and how much they trust forecasts.
As such, the National Weather Service has recognized the need to hire at least one additional communication professional or expert in human psychology to more effectively craft their messages — including through social media — to drive the appropriate public response to severe weather events.
9. More funding to do their work
Many of the problems faced by the Weather Service, from staff shortages to inadequate training to broken equipment, can all be traced back to not having enough money.
Beyond affecting the ability of forecasters to conduct their daily work, these cuts have also curtailed funding for research and development, making it difficult for scientists to refine their technological capabilities to potentially protect more lives and property in the future.
“That’s kind of the federal budget climate we’re in right now,” said meteorologist Gary Szatkowski. “We’re always expected to do the most with each dollar we’re given, and if we’re given fewer dollars, we’ll use those to the best of our ability.” He added that funding decisions are the purview of the president and members of Congress and an issue well above his pay grade, but in general making do with less is simply par for the course of working within a government agency.
“It’s a challenge,” he said, noting that the lack of adequate staffing and resources during all-hands-on-deck situations like major storms creates a stressful environment for everyone.
10. Relocate National Weather Service within the federal government
Back in 1970, when President Nixon created NOAA — which oversees the National Weather Service — it seemed logical that the new agency would be placed under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior. But instead, the president placed it within the Commerce Department, supposedly as a result of a personal disagreement he had with his Secretary of the Interior over the Vietnam War. Some environmentalists have long suggested that the Interior Department would be a much better fit, and President Obama seemed to agree when he called three years ago for an overhaul of the Commerce Department to streamline it and make it more efficient. The administration has yet to take further action, however.
All this may simply sound like an esoteric, bureaucratic adjustment, but it could actually have significant budgetary implications, says author Kathryn Miles.
“We’ve never really had a good fit for our weather program,” she said. “So much of what our National Weather Service does has absolutely nothing to do with commerce. It has to do with defense. It has to do with the interior. It has to do with transportation. So if we’re asking our weather program to help with some of these other areas, we’re really overtasking it in terms of what it can do.”
Rather than being tucked into either Commerce or Interior, Miles said, a better option would be for NOAA to stand on its own — like the Department of Homeland Security. Such an arrangement, she feels, would help ensure government forecasters finally get the funding they deserve.