Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fallout from Sandy

A while back, I posted a long rant about the process that results in "Service Assessments" from NOAA/NWS.  The idea of learning from the past is a good one, but the process by which this is done has been flawed for decades.

 In the wake of "Superstorm" Sandy, we are beginning to hear some complaints about the service provided the NWS warnings.  A service assessement is going to be done.  Some people seem to think that the warnings should have been hurricane warnings, even though the storm that made landfall was no longer being recognized as a tropical storm by the National Hurricane Center.  I'm reminded of some ill-conceived notions that have held sway in some NWS offices in the past that tornado warnings should be issued for really dangerous non-tornadic storms, just because it was felt that recipients of the warnings would be more likely to react than if they were "just severe thunderstorm warnings"!

It's my firm belief that lying to the public is not something that will turn out well for the NWS in the long run.  Part of the issue is that we humans see things in categorical "boxes" - tornadoes in one box, severe thunderstorms in another - tropical cyclones in one box, extratropical storms in another.  A lot of effort is expended in trying to get reality to fit in those neat little boxes.  Unfortunately, the atmosphere knows nothing of our categories and classifications.  The atmosphere just produces weather, and it's up to us to try to understand it, forecast it, and communicate information about it to the public as best we can.

The facts are that the storm known as "Sandy" was well-anticipated many days in advance, including the transition from a tropical to an extratropical storm about the time when the storm would make landfall.  The forecasts and warnings were for high winds, heavy rain, and a potentially dangerous storm surge - which is pretty much exactly what the storm produced!  Should it really matter to the public what label we assign to the storm?  If the public has that perception and would have been more likely to respond if it had been called a hurricane, then in my view, it's not the forecasts and warnings that are to blame for any shortfall in response.  It's a dismal failure to communicate to the public the reality posed by natural hazards.  Hurricanes are not the only meteorological threat to people living in coastal areas.

It's been my experience that most people around the world are dangerously ignorant of the threats they face from natural hazards.  Far too many people have faith in the comforting falsehood that bad events can't happen to them, so there is no need to prepare for such things.  Far too few people recognize the discomforting reality that their sense of security is an illusion, and so prepare accordingly.  Ignorance of the possibility of life-threatening events (tornadoes, flash floods, tropical storms, etc.) is not bliss - it can be a fatal mistake.  Is it the government's responsibility to look out for everyone's personal safety?  Goverment agences like the NWS do as much as they can to warn people when threatening weather is possible.  Most of the time, most people are unaffected (these are rare events, after all!).  But then those same people choose to gripe and complain when they receive a warning and nothing happens to them personally.  It's as yet not possible to warn only those specific areas that will be affected most seriously, and it won't be possible any time soon.  Perfect forecasts are simply not possible.  We can never be absolutely certain - but the forecasts and warnings for Sandy were pretty damned good!!

The "cry wolf" syndrome no doubt affects how the public perceives weather warnings, but I believe that by far the most important factor when people choose to ignore warnings is the so-called "normalcy bias".  People are ignorant enough to believe that if they've never experienced something in their short lives, then that "something" is just not possible.  They just can't believe that something bad is about to happen to them - personally!!  Hence, they simply choose to ignore the warnings and to do nothing to prepare.

In the wake of the complaining about Sandy, there almost certainly will be some response by NOAA/NWS bureaucrats.  Almost certainly, they will cave in to the pressure to call extratropical storms (or storms in transition) "hurricanes" in order to placate the fools who are now griping about the forecasts for Sandy.  Almost certainly, this capitulation to public pressure will come back to haunt them.  The service assessment coming out of this almost certainly will be flawed, at least in part for reasons discussed in my rant (linked above).  Having Mike Smith of Accuweather be on the team will almost certainly be a big mistake - he has his own agenda of self-promotion first and foremost on his mind (which is always the case) and he'll be empowered to influence the findings in a way that matches his agenda.  This likely will not be in best interest of NOAA/NWS.

CORRECTION ... it seems that Mike Smith and other non-government members have been left off the service assessment team. I had not seen the latest information before posting this.  See my comment on this blog.

I see what's going on with a sense of frustration.  And it's not limited to the USA, or the East Coast.  I see it happening over and over around the world.  Giving the public what they think they want isn't always the right thing to do.


Chuck Doswell said...

CORRECTION ... it seems that Mike Smith and other non-government members have been left off the service assessment teams. I had not seen the latest information before posting this.

I agree fully with Mike (via his blog) that the NWS should not be solely responsible for such things. Service assessment teams should always be lead by someone who has no NWS affiliation and should include a significant number of non-goverment members. Otherwise, you have the "fox guarding the chickenhouse" problem so common with "Service Assessments" as discussed in my online rant.

I just don't believe Mike would be the best choice for a non-government team member.

Anonymous said...


Sadly, some of the most egregious promoters of compartmentalizing weather events is the insurance industry. Those insurance companies could have very different payouts if the storm is labeled as a "Hurricane" vs. just a regular storm. I'm guessing most people in NJ/NY don't carry hurricane insurance. This is a another wonderful case of politics injecting itself into science for no other reason than money.

Ben Baranowski

Chuck Doswell said...


I'm unaware of special "hurricane" insurance. Typical homeowner's insurance covers wind and hail damage, but not flood damage. See:

The source of the flood damage is not relevant. This is similar to being insured against wind damage, which includes tornado damage - there's no special "tornado insurance" either.

Many people have discovered of late they don't have flood insurance only after damage from storm surge, and then have tried to claim the damage was caused by the wind.

If there's anyone offering special "hurricane" insurance, this is the first I've heard of it.