Perfect storm, perfect mess

Noted crisis communication scholar W. Timothy Coombs defines a crisis as “the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes” (p. 2). What is brewing around the National Weather Service may not yet qualify as a full-blown crisis, but when even a charitable reading of events makes it look like the organization doesn’t know what it’s doing, I’d suggest we have a problem.

Let’s review how we got here.

Hurricane Sandy (NOAA)

Saturday, October 27

With the center of temporarily-downgraded Tropical Storm Sandy still east of Cape Canaveral, Florida, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) advised those reading its discussions:


This was reiterated in the discussion six hours later, again – twice – on the media call with NHC Director Rick Knabb and NCEP Director Louis Uccellini later that afternoon, and via a statement posted on the NHC website.

That decision has proven to be a controversial one, sparking a number of debates in weather offices and on social media outlets since. It is exactly the kind of decision that would be likely reviewed during the course of a typical service assessment. However, as of this writing, no service assessment is in progress.

Week of November 5th

After criticizing the National Weather (NWS) assessment process as “badly broken” and calling for an independent investigation of Hurricane Sandy, Mike Smith was contacted by NWS HQ and asked to co-lead the Sandy Service Assessment (SA) team. Smith is a senior vice president with AccuWeather, a large private meteorological firm known for its public criticism of the NWS, so to have him as a co-lead on an NWS SA team was a potentially precedent-setting move in and of itself. The reaction to this moved was mixed: Those who agree that the assessment should be more independent welcomed the move, even suggesting it was a step toward a recent National Academies of Science report advocating more independent evaluations of the NWS; others were critical of the appointment and concerned that Smith would not be able to set aside his biases as SVP of AccuWeather and as someone who has been harshly critical of the NWS in the past.

Thursday, November 15

Mike Smith reports that earlier that morning, the NWS’s Douglas Young emailed the SA team members, informing them to stand down:

I am writing to inform you that effective immediately we are terminating the spin-up of the National Weather Service Sandy Service Assessment Team. We have been informed that a larger, multi-agency review of this event may take place…

Smith would later say in an interview with Climate Central that the team’s work had already begun and that a budget for that work had been approved.

Later that day, Rob White from The Original Weather Blog wrote to the NWS, seeking a statement. He was told that the NWS was “determining whether there will be a broader federal assessment” and that if such was to happen, they would want to be a part of it. If not, then an assessment of the agency’s performance would be conducted. He noted that his emails to NWS Public Affairs were included the phrase, “Hurricane Sandy”, but when the NWS replied, the reference to “Hurricane” had been removed. On Friday, the NWS Public Affairs official with whom White corresponded replied on a comment to Smith’s blog that she had not removed the reference. She said she believed the assessment team was calling it “Hurricane ‘Superstorm’ Sandy'”, but because that was too much text, she used “Sandy” alone for “brevity”. Smith replied in a comment, saying:

That said, as co-chair of the aborted Sandy Assessment, it was being called “Hurricane Sandy Event” by the team. It was not being called Superstorm Sandy.

Friday, November 16

In a story on Climate Central’s website, Andrew Freedman added two very interesting data points.

First, he quotes Mike Smith as saying the SA team was not going to be allowed to travel to Miami to interview forecasters and officials with the National Hurricane Center in person. Smith later clarified in a series of tweets that the team was willing to defer travel to other locations because they felt strongly the team needed to meet with the NHC folks in person but were told in no uncertain terms that would not happen. He went on to say the team felt “given the issues involved” that a teleconference would not suffice and that meeting in person would be “essential”.

Second, Freedman spoke with NWS Acting Director Laura Furgione, who said the formation of the SA team had been “premature”. She went on to say she had not seen or approved a charter governing the scope of the team’s work, nor did she know who approved the initial decision. (Smith quoted David Caldwell, Director of the NWS Office of Climate, Weather, and Water Services, with part of the rationale for his being included as co-lead, but does not say it was Caldwell specifically who made or approved his selection.)

Saturday, November 17

A member of the SA team, posting in a closed Facebook group, said “one reason the Sandy team as disbanded” had to do with the inclusion of someone from outside of the federal government (Smith).  If the SA team was made entirely of federal employees, it can operate as it sees fit, including closed work sessions and an indefinite term of service. However, once non-federal employees are on board, the activities of the SA team – an “advisory committee” in federal parlance – would be governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).  The Act formalizes the process by which these committees function, including limiting their ability to provide advice outside of the executive branch of the federal government; limiting the length of time during which the committee can operate; and imposing more reporting requirements on the committee, including fact sheets, membership details (including corporate affiliations), expense reports, public notices of meetings, and meeting minutes.

The implications of the act on this service assessment were not known to anyone on the team until after they had begun their work.  It is worth noting that this is not the first time the NWS has included non-federal-government employees on its service assessment teams; it is not known whether those previous teams operated under the terms of FACA or not.

Questions but few answers

Beyond the basic questions already before the eventual Sandy review team – of which there are many – the events of the last two weeks raise a number of additional, troubling questions:

  • If a broader, federal review of the forecasts of, warnings and preparation for, and recovery from Sandy was a possibility or foreseeable, why was a service assessment team spun up in the first place?
  • Beyond the time of the service assessment team members themselves, how much did this false start cost the NWS?
  • How was a team chosen to conduct a service assessment – a report often filed under the signature of the director of the NWS – at least one controversial and potentially precedent-setting co-lead of that team selected, and a budget for that team’s work approved without the knowledge or approval of the acting director of the NWS?
  • If no broader, federal review of Sandy is forthcoming, will the NWS return to this same team or will a new team be chosen in whole or in part? Will the team’s ability to conduct the assessment or the results of that assessment suffer as a result of this delay?
  • Why was the service assessment team denied the right to interview forecasters and officials from the National Hurricane Center in person, given that Sandy was a hurricane for most of its life and at the time the controversial warning decision was made?
  • How was a member of the NWS public affairs staff, commenting on the blog of the service assessment team’s co-lead, misinformed about how the team was referring to its work? [December 5 Update: I’m told by one of the team members that even amongst the team, whether to call it “Hurricane Sandy”, “Superstorm Sandy”, or just “Sandy” was a point of discussion well into the process. ]
  • If previous service assessment teams including non-federal employees had operated under FACA, why wasn’t that taken into account in the formation of this team from the beginning?  What repercussions, if any, are there if previous teams with non-federal employees did not operate under FACA?

That these questions are even on the table, and that we do not know what the next step will likely be, suggests we have Coombs’ “perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders”. Further, we already have one negative outcome: Instead of talking about how its meteorologists made a strikingly accurate forecast for Sandy – bolstering the weather enterprise’s and the nation’s confidence in NWS leadership, the NWS is prompting these and other questions with its disorganized (at best) approach, threatening important stakeholder expectancies and, potentially, future performance. Coombs might say we have an organization in crisis, but either way, we definitely have a problem.

[Edited to add the November 17th update and two additional questions raised as a result of that update. —nsj]

About Nate Johnson

Meteorologist, instructor, blogger, and podcaster.
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3 Responses to Perfect storm, perfect mess

  1. Hi Nate: A point I would like to make for your readers. My book, “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather” is FULL of praise for the NWS.

    Three blog posts after Sandy praised the accuracy of the NWS’s track forecast and its overall value to the American public:

    In the last of the three postings, I not only come back to my frequently-stated theme the NWS is one of the few federal agencies that pays for itself many times over, they need more resources to do a better job.

    Yes, when the NWS performs poorly (the 2011 Joplin tornado), I am critical.

    Any fair reading of my entire body of work would indicate that I’m a big fan of the NWS and its core mission, believes it needs more resources, but needs to be held accountable for subpar performance so that its services improve. I took that mindset into the service assessment and was impressed with the objectivity and dedication of the SA team that had been assembled.


  2. Nate Johnson says:

    Thanks for commenting, Mike. I was attempting to capture the concerns I’ve heard in various quarters, and some of those expressing concerns are not referring to your previous work. The key issues are the apparent disorganization of the entire process, of which your appointment as co-lead is a controversial (and heretofore unaddressed, at least publicly) part. In any event, you are right – you have been a champion of meteorologists in general and of the NWS in particular, and any reading of your work that omits acknowledging that is inadequate at best.

  3. Pingback: NWS Heading Further Down the Spiral | Digital Meteorologist

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