Claudette Raises Questions About Weather Service's Abilities

Last week's performance by the U.S. government National Weather Service in providing data and warnings about Hurricane Claudette raises important questions about National Weather Service priorities and its ability to fulfill its core mission to provide complete and timely data and protect life and property, according to AccuWeather, Inc, the world's leading commercial weather service.

The National Weather Service received and utilized critical observations by government aircraft reconnaissance during an 11-hour period the day before Claudette hit Texas, but did not make these observations available to the commercial weather industry, emergency preparedness agencies or the public. The National Weather Service normally releases this data within minutes of its collection. Dissemination of weather data is part of the National Weather Service core mission, and the reconnaissance data provides critical insight into the structure and future development of hurricanes, which meteorologists in and out of government use in preparing their forecasts.

More than a week after the National Weather Service's failure to timely provide this critical data, there still has been no official explanation. In an email to an amateur meteorologist, Dr. Todd Spindler, Senior Systems Administrator of the National Weather Service's Tropical Predictions Center, stated "The reason for the missing recon(naissance) messages (from National Weather Service public data distribution networks was that) ...some of the messages...have not been received through our data lines."

Yet the National Weather Service clearly had possession of the reconnaissance messages, utilized them in preparing its own forecasts, and quoted from them in its Tropical Storm Discussions and Public Advisories. Although the National Weather Service could have entered the reconnaissance messages into its public distribution system manually, it chose not to do so, despite the critical nature of this information to private sector meteorologists.

According to both private and government sources, "more than 85% of the weather forecasts that reach the public are prepared by the commercial weather industry." Meteorologists at AccuWeather and other private sector companies prepare the vast majority of forecasts that are used by business and that the public sees on television and newspapers, hears on radio and accesses on the Internet.

In addition to its failure to release critical reconnaissance data, the National Weather Service also failed to issue accurate warnings for Hurricane Claudette's wind speeds. This failure was cited by some citizens as the reason they did not take appropriate action in advance of the storm.

"U.S. hurricane forecasters are having to look into many complaints from residents that the storm was far stronger and more damaging than predicted," stated Dan Rather on the July 18 CBS Evening News, referring to forecasts issued by the National Weather Service. Rather's statement was made during the introduction of a segment presented by CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan.

During this segment, the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield responded, "Did we have a perfect forecast on the track and intensity (of Claudette). No. But we did about as good as the science allows us to do." Yet, according to the CBS report, "Science was telling some forecasters something else, even days before she (Claudette) hit shore," referring to AccuWeather forecasts that Claudette would strengthen and bring significantly higher winds to Texas than predicted by the government.

AccuWeather's forecast for Claudette at 10 am CDT on July 14, more than 24 hours before the storm struck Texas coast, and before the storm strengthened to hurricane status, predicted "Claudette is strengthening, will likely be at hurricane strength (winds of at least 74 miles per hour) when it makes landfall, and in the worst case scenario can be at Category 2 strength (winds of 96 to 100 miles per hour). In contrast, the National Weather Service Public Advisory in effect at the same time said "Maximum sustained winds are near 65 mph...Little change in strength is forecast during the next 24 hours."

"Claudette shows that the National Weather Service is not properly focused on its core mission," commented AccuWeather founder and president, Dr. Joel N. Myers. "This kind of activity puts lives in danger. We need to expect more from an agency focusing on protecting life and property, in both better warnings and in releasing the critical data in a timely way to the commercial weather industry, emergency preparedness agencies and the public."

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