First Sandy Assessment Team: We Were Moving Forward

An assessment of the National Weather Service’s performance before and during Hurricane Sandy is moving forward, and that is a good thing. However, there seem to be plenty of confusion about how and why the last effort was terminated.

NOAA’s Statement

Over the weekend, the NWS issued a statement laying out an overview of the Sandy assessment process. It is worth your time to read it in its entirety. In short, they began with the intent of including external experts but had to scrap the team due to two concerns: NOAA and NWS interest in a broader, potentially multi-agency review and questions about compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Two Issues: A Misunderstanding and a Legal Review

Two primary issues remain about the original assessment team: Whether the team had been chartered and officially allowed to begin its work and what the team was told at the time of its suspension.

Cleared for Work? Sort of.

Both Mike Smith from AccuWeather, one of two people picked to lead the team, and Greg Carbin, an NWS employee also selected to serve on the team, said they believed the team had been authorized to move forward. Carbin told AccuWeather.com’s Jillian Macmath, “I was working under the assumption that we were moving forward with this under an official capacity.” Smith wrote in a November 29th blog post, “I can provide the email approving the team, the team’s charter and even the accounting codes we were given for expense reimbursement! The team was approved and we had begun work!”

In speaking to various team members, it is clear the team was moving forward, and to a one, each said they had invested significant time and effort toward the team’s work. That work also affected some people not on the team: Two sessions of “root cause analysis” training – sessions led by the Warning Decision Training Branch, another arm of the NWS, to help team members look beyond symptoms to find the root causes of problems – had been scheduled, one for Wednesday, November 14, and a second for Thursday, November 15. I am told by one team member the first one took place as scheduled. The second was scheduled for after the team’s activities were shut down.

Additionally, the team was well on its way to scheduling interviews with many of the key players. One schedule circulated between some members would have had them conducting those interviews in Washington, DC, during the first week of December, with some interviewees being interviewed via videoconference. One member said the schedule was nearly final, and they were “hours from booking flights” for the team to travel from their various locations to DC, New Jersey, or New York in order to conduct these interviews.

This points to a clear and rather unfortunate disconnect between the NWS leadership and others – including the members of the team – about how official their work was at this point. The team thought they were clear to begin work and were moving forward accordingly, with at least some administrative and budgetary support from inside the NWS, including having being provided accounting codes and engaging in the WDTB training. However, the NWS says clearly that the team’s charter was never formally approved. In an email statement, NWS spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said the copy of the charter sent to the team on November 8 was clearly marked as “DRAFT” (including the capital letters) but said that at this stage, “team members typically organize and discuss travel plans, but they do not travel, conduct interviews, or begin drafting a report” without a finalized charter. That appears to be consistent with what I’ve been told about the team’s activities leading up to November 15. She says with future assessments, the NWS “will ensure the process is clear to proposed members as the team is being formed.”

Two Reasons for Suspension But Only One Disclosed Originally

The NWS statement from this weekend says program staff were asked to “dissolved the proposed team” until the following issues could be “fully explored and resolved”:

1. NOAA and NWS interest in the potential for assessing Sandy through broader federal collaboration, which would include at minimum inviting participation from other NOAA line offices and other government agencies to serve on the NWS assessment team.

2. For the first time ever, the draft charter proposed a co‐lead from outside the government. This proposal led to questions regarding FACA [Federal Advisory Committee Act] compliance, and ultimately to a review by counsel and policy officials who determined that including non‐federal participants on our service assessment teams did not comply with FACA.

Notice of that dissolution came to the group in an email on Thursday morning, November 15, with the subject line “Termination of Sandy Service Assessment Team Spin-up” (emphasis mine). The email said, “a larger, multi-agency review of this event may take place”, speaking to the first point. However, no mention of the second – FACA compliance – was made. Buchanan says they were waiting on guidance from attorneys on this issue and “had nothing to convey until the attorneys had time to review the issue”. As a result, all of the former team members I spoke with said the first time they heard anything about the FACA issue was via postings on Facebook or blogs. It was not until the Washington Post asked specifically about FACA compliance that the NWS was prepared to explain both lines of reasoning.

Some Thoughts Going Forward

It is unfortunate that the NWS was not more forthcoming about both reasons for the Sandy assessment effort’s termination. While I acknowledge the desire to consult with lawyers before moving forward, the issue of FACA compliance was a concern for NWS leadership at the time the team’s work was terminated, and that fact should have been shared with the team and the media at that time. Instead, the NWS chose to “focus” on the broader-review line of reasoning, and it was only after they were specifically asked that they acknowledged the FACA compliance issue. Instead, the NWS should have made both issues known from the beginning, at the very least to the team members who had spent more than a week working on the assessment. That would have maximized transparency across the board.

The NWS says in its own statement that including external experts on the assessment teams “is the right thing to do because it brings important, relevant expertise to bear that NWS does not have, or has in only very limited ways – notably social science skills. It also helps assure external parties that the assessment itself is conducted without bias or intent to hide any NWS shortcomings that might be discovered.” Unfortunately, until NOAA and the NWS are able to comply with FACA – June 1, 2013 is the date they’ve given – the upcoming Sandy assessment, as well as any further assessments1, will be forced to draw their membership solely from the federal ranks. I work with a number of NWS colleagues on a number of projects: I know them to be good people, and I know those asked to participate on these assessments will do their level best to conduct those assessments thoroughly and professionally. That said, it is not just in the NWS’ best interest but also those of the entire weather enterprise for these issues to be resolved quickly, thoroughly, and forthrightly. Getting the Sandy assessment team formed, its charter approved, and its work fully underway will be a great first step.

______

1 A service assessment was undertaken following the derecho wind-storm event across the Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic states in June; according to Buchanan, that team included three social science researchers from outside the federal government. That team has completed its work, and the draft report is under review. This would presumably mean the new-found FACA compliance issues would not affect its work or report. This is good.

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About Nate Johnson

Meteorologist and Executive Producer at WRAL-TV. Lecturer at NC State. Panelist on WeatherBrains. Geek. (Opinions are mine only. C'mon, you think anyone else wants them?)
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