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Weather Service defends forecasts as Cuomo seeks state system

Signs were already brewing for last week’s devastating lake effect snowfall as early as Nov. 15, when the National Weather Service issued its first watches for a couple of feet of snow – and maybe more.

Over the following two days leading up to the storm, the watches were upgraded to warnings as weather service forecasts called for “near blizzard conditions” across Erie County with “around two feet in the most persistent bands” that could leave “some roads ... nearly impassable.”

The weather service also accurately pegged accumulating snows at almost unheard of “rates of 3 to 5 inches per hour in the most intense portion of the band.”

But, according to state and Erie County officials, not only did the information come too late for them to adequately prepare, the national forecasting service also failed to project the ferocity and exact locations of the tandem lake-effect storms that dumped 7 feet or more of snow in just 72 hours.

That’s why Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Sunday that the state is continuing plans for its own $18.7 million New York Advanced Weather Detective System.

When developed, New York State would join six others with weather forecasting systems of their own.

“It is not that the National Weather Service failed us,” Cuomo said. “It’s that the National Weather Service has a certain number of weather stations and they get that information from those weather stations.

“And, they perform the best they can with the information they have.”

After first calling for a new system after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee hit the state in 2011 and then Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, Cuomo said Sunday the state seeks “a more accurate prediction of weather” with its own network of more than 100 weather stations across the state, which he said would be more than the National Weather Service has in New York.

“So, when the wind starts to pick up, when the rain starts to fall, you can detect it very early in the pattern’s development and then you can track its trajectory of that weather pattern, which would obviously give you more data, would give you more information, which would be more reliable,” Cuomo said.

Officials at the National Weather Service’s Buffalo office declined to comment on the governor’s remarks but agency officials at the national level disputed Cuomo’s suggestion that its forecasting was in any way faulty.

“We were caught by surprise by those comments,” said Christopher Vaccaro, a weather service spokesman. “This was a very well-forecasted event.”

Vaccaro said the weather service was assembling a timeline of its issuance of watches and warnings in advance of the “three-part storm” that included both lake-effect snowstorms and today’s expected flooding and windstorm to bolster its claims.

“We’ve been quite forthcoming and quite accurate in terms of what people in the Buffalo area could expect was coming,” Vaccaro said.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said that had county officials known there was any chance for 70 or more inches falling across parts of the county, its preparation would have been different. Poloncarz said he’d have contacted Cuomo asking for even more equipment from the state Department of Transportation and an earlier activation of the National Guard.

“We were still basing it on a 30-inch storm, which very shortly changed into a 7-foot storm,” Poloncarz said.

The county executive said initial meetings with county emergency managers included planning and manpower mobilization based on a forecast bulletin it received from the weather service last Sunday night and early last Monday that showed the heaviest snow bands starting in the metro area before shifting south.

So the county dispatched highway crews to places like North Collins and Brant – crews that may have otherwise been placed in places like Lancaster, Cheektowaga or Hamburg.

“They’re doing a tremendous job there. They’re working very hard,” Poloncarz said of the National Weather Service. “Sometimes Mother Nature throws a curve ball. Weather forecasting is an inexact science.”

If its forecast was off, the National Weather Service had a lot of company.

No one called anything close to 65 inches for the first round of the lake-effect storm – much less for that much snow in south Cheektowaga.

A survey of area television forecasts for last Monday through Wednesday’s first blast shows WGRZ-TV’s 37.4 inches at Hamburg as the high mark for snowfall predicted by any of the three local network affiliates. WIVB-TV forecast 20-30 inches for the Southtowns and WKBW-TV meteorologists thought the total would be 1-2 feet in “persistent bands.”

Perhaps New York’s Advanced Weather Detection System would fare better – or perhaps not.

Cuomo seems to think it would.

“Ten years ago, predicting the weather tomorrow was almost a matter of convenience, right? Now, it can be a matter of life and death,” Cuomo said. “And knowing where that extreme weather is going to hit and knowing when it’s going to hit is very important.”

Cuomo, along with Vice President Biden, unveiled plans for the new state weather system on Jan. 7. Coincidentally, it was while Buffalo was undergoing its first of a pair of blizzards early this year.

The system will be headquartered in Albany and monitored by the University of Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center in coordination with the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. More than 100 unmanned sensors will communicate real-time weather data via Internet to the research center, Cuomo said.

No timetable for the state’s new weather system – billed as providing “localized, accurate, real-time data on air, wind, soil, and radiation conditions” – has been announced, but $15 million was approved in the 2014-15 state budget to get it started.

State officials said FEMA funds from Superstorm Sandy will pay for the weather system.