NOAA Examines Sandy Response

The government agency charged with monitoring approaching storms has issued a post-mortem on Sandy. Among the conclusions: the NOAA needs more than one storm-surge modeler and a better social media strategy.

05.15.13 7:41 PM ET

As Sandy approached landfall six months ago, news media struggled to decide what to call the meteorological phenomenon. Hurricane Sandy? Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy? Extratropical Cyclone Sandy? This terminological chaos, which eventually gave rise to terms like “Superstrom” and “Frankenstorm,” was partly the result of debates within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which the agency details in a post-Sandy service assessment released today.

When the storm began to shift from a hurricane to a post-tropical cyclone, the agency debated how to handle it--should the National Hurricane Center pass warning duties off to the National Weather Service's forecasting offices now that it wasn’t a hurricane? Would downgrading it hours before landfall cause people to disregard warnings? The Hurricane Center handed off warning duties to local forecasting offices as the storm, now a post-tropical cyclone, neared North Carolina, but the transition created a jumble of warnings and reports. From the assessment:

The myriad of watches, warnings, and advisories issued for Sandy posed particular challenges for media trying to focus on storm impacts over a large area. The lack of a hurricane warning was perceived as a complicating factor by the media. Many media representatives felt explaining the change took valuable time away from focusing on impacts and preparedness actions. One media representative stated, “There needs to be a clear bottom line” for the variety of information available from NOAA to help “tell the story” effectively. Officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, while generally pleased with NWS services during Sandy, stated that NWS terminology was confusing to the general public. In particular, terms such as coastal flooding or major flooding, in the absence of detailed and specific impacts, were not well understood. These officials recommended using simplified language that includes impact-based threats.

Simpler terminology would be helpful, especially for people more concerned about immediate flooding than meteorological nuances. But while NOAA's focus on classifying the storm may seem like nitpicking, it’s important to note that the agency's definitions have real-world ramifications, especially when it comes to insurance. Had NOAA labeled Sandy a hurricane instead of a post-tropical storm when it made landfall, homeowners would have faced much higher deductibles. New York Senator Chuck Schumer went so far as to write a letter to NOAA asking the agency not to change Sandy back to a hurricane.

Instead of broadcasting storm classifications, NOAA says it should focus on getting the word out about immediate threats, like coastal flooding. That’ll be a challenge, though, because there’s currently only one person dedicated to forecasting storm surge. The assessment calls for hiring three storm-surge model developers, which seems like the bare minimum, given that storm-surge was Sandy’s biggest killer.

Short-staffed as it was, NOAA's surge forecasts were remarkably accurate. The problem, again, was communication. The report found that the news media, emergency responders, and residents were confused about when the storm surge would begin and how bad it would be. After Mayor Bloomberg downplayed the seriousness of the storm, partly because it wouldn't be a hurricane when it made landfall, the Hurricane Center called New York's Office of Emergency Management to remind them about the storm surge. The call, according to the report, was an "eye opener." 

Because of all this confusion, the major theme of the assessment is that NOAA needs to hire more communications specialists, redesign its websites to be more user friendly, and bolster its presence on social media. The National Weather Service websites got 1.3 billion hits during Sandy, but many of the sites spread important information out over several pages. People were going there for information, but it wasn't always easy to find. NOAA also wants to make better use of social media, which, the report notes again, will require being more clear and conciser. It’ll be interesting to see how NOAA and the Hurricane Center handle this year’s storms. According to AccuWeather’s forecast, it looks to be an active season.