Weather forecaster speaks his mind about storm advisories

Douglas Quenqua / New York Times News Service /

As Hurricane Sandy made its way up the coast, Bryan Norcross sat at his desk in the Weather Channel’s headquarters in Atlanta, waiting for the National Hurricane Center to issue a warning for the Northeast.

In many ways, he is still waiting.

“On Friday, Jim Cantore asked me on the air, ‘Are they going to issue a hurricane watch for the Northeast?’” said Norcross, 61, referring to his fellow Weather Channel meteorologist. “And I said, ‘They’ve got to do it tomorrow’” — meaning Oct. 27, two days before the arrival of dangerous winds — to give people time to prepare.

But as that day came and went, no such warning was issued. Because the storm was predicted to become a post-tropical system by the time it hit land, the hurricane center (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA) chose not to issue any hurricane advisory, fearing that the confusion that might result from a midstorm shift in warnings.

“We all looked at ourselves and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Norcross said — and when he returned late that night to the Atlanta house he uses during hurricane season, he took to his blog to express his frustration.

“I’m betting,” he wrote, that the hurricane center’s rules “didn’t envision a super-mega-combo freak of a storm slamming into the most populated part of the country.

“When all hell is breaking loose, sometimes you’ve got to break a few rules to do the right thing.”

Nobody knows this better than Norcross. In 1992, then a weatherman in South Florida, he became the breakout star of Hurricane Andrew when he broadcast live for 23 hours straight, much of it from a storage room, at WTVJ, an NBC affiliate. Many residents credited his steady tone and resourceful tips (if you have ever huddled in a bathtub covered by a mattress, you can thank Norcross) with getting them through the storm. Afterward, some Floridians scrawled “Norcross for President” on their battered homes.

Last week, his criticism of the hurricane center and of Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City for briefly playing down Hurricane Sandy’s severity once again placed him in the middle of the storm. While the government did a top-notch job predicting the storm’s path, he says, the confusion over warnings exposed the failings of a system ill-equipped for an age of rising seas and monster storms.

“They made outstanding forecasts,” he said of NOAA. “Their strength forecast was essentially perfect, and their storm surge forecast for New York City was absolutely as good as a forecast can be these days.”

But when it came time to issue warnings, Norcross believes that NOAA was hamstrung by its byzantine guidelines, ultimately placing its bureaucracy ahead of its obligation to make people understand the danger they faced.

At the heart of the matter is NOAA’s bifurcated system for issuing storm advisories. There is one set of warnings for tropical storms, and another set for nor’easter or winter storms.

Technically, this most recent event was both, “a hybrid storm with a hurricane in the middle, wrapped up in a nor’easter,” Norcross said. The rules simply weren’t made with such a system in mind. “That’s when you have to call an audible,” he said.

“Yes, the warnings they put out for hurricane-force wind warnings and then coastal flood warnings and all these sorts of things all cumulatively mean the same thing,” he said. “But the average disc jockey or TV announcer or anchorman is not going to communicate those things fully and accurately and with the same impact as simply with the two words: hurricane warning.”

That lack of urgency from NOAA may have contributed to the dismissive tone of Bloomberg’s news conference the Saturday before the storm, in which he sounded not particularly nervous. “Although we are expecting a large surge of water, it is not expected to be a tropical-storm- or hurricane-type surge,” he said, adding that after the storm, the city should consider giving aid to regions to the north or south that would surely be harder hit.

“I’m baffled by what the mayor said,” Norcross said on the air that night. “Shocked, to tell you the truth.”

Later that night, he was even more blunt.

“To play down the biggest storm to come along in years — if the forecast is even close — seems bizarrely out of character,” he wrote on his blog, which gets about 10,000 views on a typical day but received as many as 60,000 per day during the storm. “The normally well-oiled machine that is the Bloomberg administration seems to have slipped a communications cog.”

In response to criticism from Norcross and others — including AccuWeather’s chief executive, Barry Myers — NOAA quickly issued a news release and held a conference call with reporters to explain its decision.

“What we are trying to avoid here is a confusing switch from tropical watches and warnings to nontropical watches and warnings,” Richard Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, told the reporters. “Regardless of what type of system this is, regardless of the exact type of warning, we are still warning for storm surge, inland flooding and strong winds at the coast and well inland.”

After every storm, NOAA conducts a review of its advisory decisions; one such review is under way for Hurricane Isaac, which struck the Gulf Coast in August. The review for Hurricane Sandy will begin this month, and is likely to include a look at how the agency communicates its warnings to the public. The Bloomberg administration did not reply to a request for comment.

Some say Norcross is being overly critical of the hurricane center. “This storm was so hyped,” said Brian McNoldy, senior research associate at the University of Miami. “People knew for days this was going to be a potentially historic storm. I don’t think it really hurt anyone by not having a hurricane warning.”

Norcross, who worked as a radio DJ and a television news producer before he became a meteorologist in 1980, acknowledges that the weather forecaster’s role must also change with the climate. While the quantity and quality of storm-prediction data has exploded in recent years, it is important that forecasters be able to see the whole picture, and help people understand threats in a plain-spoken, non-alarmist way.

“These days, warnings don’t come two and a half days before the storm,” he said. “They come a week before.”

So “tone management” is more important than ever, he continued. “I find that when people feel fully informed, they’re much less likely to panic.”

That changing role would seem to include a strong dose of advocacy. On his blog Tuesday, he wrote of the nor’easter now bearing down on the region: “The biggest threat is the cold, wet and windy weather’s impact on people that are not prepared to deal with more misery. We need a big effort. There are a lot of folks, and there’s a lot of misery.”

And in the wee hours of Monday morning, Norcross published a 1,700-word blog post that once again criticized NOAA and Bloomberg, but also took issue with insurance companies for selling bogus “hurricane insurance” and called the notion of letting the states take over the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s responsibilities “an idiotic idea.”

Those may seem like strong words coming from a kindly weatherman. But someone has to help people understand the realities of weather, Norcross said.

“You’re always going to need meteorologists who focus solely on the science of meteorology,” he said, “but this focus on communications needs to be a bigger and bigger part of the process.

“You live and you learn,” he said, “and when you live with freak events, you learn more.”