Superstorm Sandy was a devastating event that caused death, destruction and billions of dollars in property damage in its wake. One fact that was brought out during the onslaught of that huge hurricane was the need to update our nation’s weather forecasting and emergency management systems. We talk to a journalist and author who conducted research on the storm, the systems that tracked it and found out how our weather forecasting, tracking and evacuation protocols and equipment need to be modernized to deal with the extreme weather that climate change will bring us in the future.
- Kathryn Miles, journalist and author of Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy.
15-02 Predicting Superstorms: Our Failing Weather Infrastructure
Gary Price: When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States in the fall of 2012, it became a record-breaker on many counts. According to CNN, the surge level at Battery Park in New York City measured 13-point-88 feet, surpassing the old record of 10-point-02 feet set in 1960; Sandy created a 32-and-a-half foot wave in New York Harbor – 6-point-five feet higher than one generated by Hurricane Irene in 2011; and it closed the stock market for two consecutive days, something that hadn’t happened because of weather since 1888. The storm also highlighted some disturbing facts about our national weather forecasting and emergency management infrastructure. Kathryn Miles painstakingly researched the storm and talked to the people who were responsible for weather technology, reporting, and evacuations for her book, Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy. She says that hurricanes and other storms like Sandy were once considered unusual – but not anymore.
Kathryn Miles: At the time Sandy was very much an anomaly. It broke a lot of rules in terms of meteorological best practices and what we think we know that major storms do. But what both climatologists and meteorologists are telling us is that what was once the storm of the century is now going to be the storm of the decade for instance. And so we’re going to see an increasing number of Sandies, and we’re also going to see similar types of weather not just on the coast but everywhere in the county.
Gary Price: The change in climate has also changed what we used to rely on to predict future weather patterns.
Kathryn Miles: We thought we knew weather patterns and so much of meteorological prediction is based on probability tables--what’s happened in the past, what do we know? And what’s happening is as sea levels rise; as sea temperature rises we’re seeing these really sort of catastrophic effects. Not just where the sea is, but obviously you know the world is a closed system and what happens in one place has dramatic effects for the others.
Gary Price: Miles outlines just how the chain of events unfolded when Sandy was at its earliest stages. She says that at the time there were very strict protocols that were followed for hurricane tracking.
Kathryn Miles: As soon as a system becomes a tropical depression, at that point the hurricane hunters begin flying hourly flights through the storms. The National Hurricane Center begins doing forecasting, watches, warnings, advisories. They also start working with their peers in other countries, places like Jamaica or wherever else that the storm happens to be going. But once that storm becomes anything other than a purely tropical system, which is what happened in the case of Sandy, the National Hurricane Center loses its ability to issue those watches, warnings and advisories. So at the time of Sandy what we saw was several days in the National Hurricane Center was in the incredibly unfortunate position of no longer being able to issue those advisories. So they had to take down their watches and warnings, they had to hand off responsibility to the National Weather Service regional offices, who then issued their own advisories, things like gale watches, and it lead to a lot of confusion. The majority of people who were affected by Sandy didn’t know what type of storm was affecting them. And we saw this real domino affect in terms of emergency management plans, in terms of major population areas, like New York City, not issuing timely evacuation notices. And so really it’s as much about the communication of the storm as it is the storm itself.
Gary Price: Miles says that since Superstorm Sandy, some of those faulty protocols have been changed. However, there is still a problem with understaffing.
Kathryn Miles: As I started doing my research and reporting for the book, I knew I was going to be telling the narrative of the storm. What I didn’t realize I was going to be doing was uncovering a real infrastructure crisis, in terms of our national meteorological systems. We currently have about four hundred staffed positions in the National Weather Service and these are high ranking positions: forecasters, radar technicians, people like that. And we have some faulty protocols. The protocol that didn’t allow the National Hurricane Center to continue issuing warnings for Sandy, that happily has been resolved, but we still have all of these significant shortcomings. We have one storm surge expert for the entire country. We saw with Sandy, we saw a huge surge in places like Chicago--Lake Michigan had record waves. We saw these very dramatic pictures of waves lapping Lake Shore Drive and museum-goers getting wet, and we don’t have a storm surge expert who does inland surge forecasting and we need one. So what we really need to do, I think, at this point is invest in the infrastructure that’s going to let our National Weather Service do it’s job.
Gary Price: Part of the infrastructure that needs immediate attention are the two polar orbiting satellites that make daily trips around the country once per day.
Kathryn Miles: They give us the data that’s used for our midrange and our long range forecasting. As I mentioned earlier we have two of them in the air right now. One is well past its life expectancy, the other just reached its life expectancy a year or so ago, and was never intended to be a functional satellite. It was supposed to be a demo model intended to test new technologies. What we saw was this sort of bureaucratic loggerhead between NASA and NOAA that ultimately led to a satellite gap, which is where we are right now. So NOAA is struggling to get its next satellite up, they’re hoping it’ll be operational in 2018. The second one they’re hoping will be up in 2024, but in the meantime either one of these satellites, or both frankly, could die at any time. So we could ultimately have a satellite gap of anywhere between two and eight years.
Gary Price: And what do we do if a satellite gap opens up? Miles says we have to rely on other countries’ data.
Kathryn Miles: One thing that Congress has been doing right now is trying to address this potential gap, and there was a very decisive report that was issued this summer called the Riverside Report that investigated ways to deal with the gap. And one of the possibilities was to use satellite data from the European Union, but they’re also about to be in a similar satellite gap. So the silver bullet solution suggested by this report was in fact that we buy our satellite data from the Chinese military, and that raises some obvious national security issues.
Gary Price: Various news outlets reported last fall that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s computers were hacked by the Chinese.
Kathryn Miles: We don’t know what they want, but what we do know is that we’re dealing with a very vulnerable network here. The U.S. weather network is not only vulnerable, and not only has not been upgraded to get some of the security measures that other other networks have had added to them over the years, but it’s also directly tied to the Department of Defense network. And so a hack into the NOAA network can very easily become a hack into the entire Department of Defense network. So what we really need to do is we need to shore up these networks, we need to separate these networks and we need to have duplicate, almost sort of, redundant systems in place in the case we need to shut one down we can very easily move over somewhere else. With the hack that we saw this fall the NOAA network went down for three days, we had no satellite information, we saw false watches and warning being issued, and it’s not too far of a stretch, I think, to consider ways in which this could very effectively be used as a terrorist technique.
Gary Price: In addition to upgrading technology, security and manpower, Miles says that the methods and timing for issuing evacuation and other emergency notifications needs attention to prevent injury and loss of life. She says that despite the devastation to property in New Jersey, New York City suffered more deaths due to the superstorm, partly because of the way people were warned.
Kathryn Miles: We saw very dramatically different responses to the storm in New York and New Jersey. In New Jersey what we saw was Governor Christie was issuing these very strong statements, very early on. He called for evacuations days out, and he was making these very dramatic press conferences where he would say you know, “Get the hell off the beach,” and “don’t be stupid.” And these are sort of folksy platitudes but they’re really effective in terms of getting people to act. In New York City we saw this real breakdown in communication, and Mayor Bloomberg did not issue early evacuation warnings. Quite to the contrary he assumed, and his staff assumed, that everybody was going to be fine. That in fact New York was going to miss the brunt of this. And I spent a lot of time talking to his senior staff and also to the staff of the New York City Office of Emergency Management. And I wanted to know why did this plan fall down. There’s a lot of finger pointing that’s going on right now. Some people blame the National Weather Service; some people blame the staff of Mayor Bloomberg and the Office of Emergency Management. But what we do know is that the emergency management plan was far from sufficient, and the drills they used to practice were also far from sufficient. And this is as applicable in any other city as it is New York City.
Gary Price: With climate change causing more and more extreme and unpredictable weather across the country, why is it that we wait until a disaster strikes before doing anything about beefing up our weather programs and infrastructure? Why can’t we be proactive?
Kathryn Miles: As a nation we tend to be a responsive nation, and we get caught in this sort of vicious circle I think where we see for instance these dramatic images of the Red Cross coming in after a natural disaster and feeding people and giving them blankets. And that’s wonderful and we don’t want to stop doing that, but if we spent more money on the front end we wouldn’t need as much of that kind of responsiveness. And it’s hard I think for us to swallow that were going to pay for something that we don’t know see and we don’t know if it’s effective. But what we know is that this sort of stuff is going to keep happening. We’re going to see flooding on the Mississippi, we’re going to see weird lake effect weather around the Great Lakes, we’re going to see bigger, weirder tropical storms on our coasts, And we need to be doing things to make sure that when they arrive the people who live there are safe.
Gary Price: Not wanting to pay for what we can’t see, or don’t know if we’ll need aren’t the only reasons for hesitation. Miles says that people just don’t think they should be charged for something that benefits people other than themselves.
Kathryn Miles: If you live in Illinois should you be paying for what’s going to help Michigan and Indiana? And we see that a lot with things like earthquake prediction right now too. You know we have been ability to do early warning prediction and early warning technology for earthquakes, but I think that a lot of people who don’t live in California think “Well, why would what I want to pay for that?” But I think what we really have to realize as Americans is that everything in our country is intimately tied to weather. And whether or not that particular weather is happening in your area, the effects are going to be massive. Billions and billions of dollars in energy blackouts, in commerce, in public safety our tied up in our national weather, and so we really have to take a holistic approach.
Gary Price: You can read about the brave men and women who forecast severe weather, and those who put their lives on the line helping in emergency management during superstorm Sandy, in Kathryn Miles book, Superstorm, available in stores and online. She also invites listeners to visit her web site at superstormthebook.com. You can also find information about all of our guests on our site at viewpointsonline.net. I’m Gary Price.
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