Friday, April 29, 2011

A disgraceful sham of a program

We're on the second day after a historic outbreak of tornadoes in the southeastern US, that has had tragic consequences. Anyone familiar with these events knows that clean-up begins virtually immediately after a tornado has passed. A big part of the need for clean-up is to allow search and rescue by first responders, and so debris is moved off streets and highways to allow them access.

Although these and subsequent clean-up efforts are necessary and clearly need to begin as early as possible, one consequence is that they disturb the evidence needed for a "forensic" survey team. Therefore it has been deemed important that survey teams arrive as soon as possible after the event -- preferably early in the morning on the day following the event. They need access to the damaged areas (which often are closed off to prevent looting!) in order to glean the information they need before the rubble is piled up and carted away. BTW -- I've literally written the book on the subject and have been a national Quick Response Team member since it began -- I've been on precisely one damage survey (the 4 May 2003 event in Kansas City) since the QRT began! No one has called to ask me to participate in the survey for the current event.

In the past, we had Prof. Ted Fujita to do major event surveys. He had the influence and the resources to put a large team together and get them to the scene quickly, in order to obtain the information they needed to learn from these tragic events. With his death, there was a period when no one took any responsibility for doing scientific surveys after tornado disasters. The National Weather Service (NWS) was content with the "service assessment" process. Following the tornado outbreak of 3 May 1999 and especially the La Plata, MD tornado of 28 April 2002 (which was initially and erroneously rated an F5 tornado), the NWS instituted the Quick Response Team (QRT) -- the members of this national "team" were recruited from the ranks of those with experience at doing surveys of tornadic storms. They all volunteered to serve without compensation (save for travel costs) in order that we obtain the forensic evidence necessary first to understand what happened in detail, and then to learn whatever lessons could be gleaned from that evidence. The goal was to provide the advice of experienced people for the purpose of establishing the estimated intensity of the tornadoes (i.e, their F-scale - now supplanted by the EF-scale).

For a few years, this national QRT operated more or less as intended, but then it seemed that some tender egos in the NWS began to fear that they were losing control of the process. They felt they had sufficient "in-house" expertise to carry out the investigations and didn't require the services of "outsiders" in the process. I can't pretend to know precisely what NWS managers thought, but the net result has been that the national QRT is now a pathetic sham of a program. For all intents and purposes, it simply doesn't exist. The only person ever called to do a "national QRT" now is Tim Marshall, who is unquestionably one of the best. I'll leave it to the NWS to explain why Tim is the only one upon whom they now call who isn't an NWS employee. I don't understand why the NWS is refusing the advice of experienced "experts".

But a major event like the one of 27 April 2011 demands a team of folks doing the work. There are just too many tornadoes for one person to cover. Tim can only do so much and the clock ticks relentlessly as the clean-up proceeds. The 27 April 2011 outbreak of tornadoes in the southeastern US needs to be investigated using all available resources including the national QRT, and yet it seems the national QRT is on hold because the national Warning Coordination Meteorologist was out of the office yesterday!! And there are problems in coming up with the funding to support any travel by the team. Issues regarding travel support for the team should have been resolved years ago! This amounts to a disgraceful episode for NWS management. An important way to compensate our society for the damage and pain caused by tornadoes is for us to do our jobs and learn as much as we can from them. The moribund state of the national QRT is clear evidence of an inept performance and a lack of commitment by NWS management that is inhibiting the accurate assessement and comprehensive investigation of this tragic and historic tornado outbreak.


Justin Reid said...

Wow, I never knew there was a national storm assesment (QRT) team! Apparently it's just an illusion anyway. I was wondering why the Tuscaloosa storm wasn't officially rated as of yet (to my knowledge) and apparently a lack of coordination is involved in the mix.

What I really wonder is what in all the world is the national WCM for the NWS "out of the office" for? What could be more pressing then a second Super Outbreak of tornadoes killing hundreds, Washington lobbying?

I hope the NWS/Research community gets a burst of support after this event (like after 1974 with NEXRAD and AWIPS development). But unfortunately I think the attention span of our government is too short for that.

Justin Reid

Anonymous said...

Very good points. I've heard Tim Marshall's name mentioned with great reverence by many meteorologists. But as you said, there does need to be a TEAM doing these major surveys, especially with an event of such historic proportions. To their credit, I will mention that NWS Huntsville called in Brian Peters to help survey the F4 damage from the Super Tuesday Outbreak of 2008. I have not seen his name on any of the surveys from this event so far, but I do know that former MIC Mike Coyne came back to help, and Kevin Knupp from UAH also helped. Perhaps this event will wake people up to the need for a consistent sort of nation-wide survey team again.

Anonymous said...

The NWS, like much of the field of meteorology in general, has become more of a "club" than anything else. With "un-club" minded people put to pasture regardless of their merit. The arrogant "only we can do the job" sort of attitude is becoming more widespread when in reality many more could do an even better job!

Anonymous said...

There are some minor issues with the article here.

1. Dr. Kevin Knupp is a QRT certified surveyor and he was on the ground from the beginning in northern Alabama. He was instrumental in rating much of the long track EF-5 in addition to identifying smaller tracks and satellite tornadoes.

2. The article implies that a large time lapsed between the tornadoes and assessments being made. There were 5 teams on the ground or in the air by 10 am Thursday morning in Nrn AL. In all...over 900 NWS man hours and 300 UAH man hours were used to date on surveys in the region.

The article does have some very valid points. It's only fair to point out some alternative views however.

Chuck Doswell said...

Anon ... Just what does "QRT certified" mean? Who does the certification and of what does it consist? Nothing against Dr. Knupp, but I know nothing about a QRT certification program.

Alternative views exist for everything! Thanks for sharing.