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Don Paul: National Weather Service 'impact forecasting' is vital

Those of us in the broadcast sector of weather forecasting have had a longtime advantage in freedom to choose flexible language to describe not only predicted weather, but the impact that weather would have on the public, transportation and business. People like me who have been allowed to run off at the mouth as we see fit have been able to talk outside of the box in describing those impacts, assuming we were wearing our thinking caps when ad-libbing on the air, or posting on our station websites and apps.

For example, on Saturday and Sunday last weekend, I could be somewhat emphatic about gloomy, dark skies and nasty wind chill which would impact trick or treaters and their parental escorts. That goes beyond simply saying some lake rain, breezy and cold. Not critical information in this case, but that follows a philosophy of looking at a forecast with a journalistic eye and determining “What’s the lead?” in the forecast for public impact.

In recent years, the National Weather Service, its primary centers such as the National Hurricane Center, and its local forecast offices have become much more proficient at impact forecasting in advance of major events. Before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, models were predicting virtually unprecedented rainfall in southeast Texas, and forecaster confidence was high. NWS issued with its formatted special statements and warnings: “This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.”

That turned out to be excellent language for the horrendous event. NWS has taken a multidisciplinary approach to impact forecasting, especially in bringing in social scientists and behavioralists to help frame the most effective language to grab the public’s attention.

One problem much of this excellent, descriptive language isn’t reaching enough of the public. Too many people are relying on a plethora of smart phone apps, some of which are referred to by wags like me as “crap apps.” Grabby icons, a few words and a temperature just don’t cut it for major weather events with big impacts. On many television station apps, you can access these special statements if you peel back a layer, but quite a few other apps are all but worthless for anything other than routine, broad-brush forecasts in quiet weather patterns.

The NWS can do great, detailed diligence in crafting descriptive impact forecasts. But if not enough people have access to those forecasts, or refuse to take the time to access them and detailed forecasts from local broadcast meteorologists, they can still be taken by surprise. This was the case for thousands of Houstonians who lived outside of the FEMA flood zones. Some surveys revealed many people simply weren’t paying enough attention to what turned out to be excellent forecasts and excellent watches and warnings from both the Houston NWS and local broadcast meteorologists.

The NWS warning system is relied upon to get emergency information out, and we broadcast meteorologists immediately relay NWS warnings as well, to avoid sewing confusion among the public with our own non-standardized warnings. This system of warnings and watches is being improved and, where possible, simplified. However, much more will have to be done as tens of millions live in vulnerable locations, with the exposed population growing. As a warming climate progresses, the increase in flooding rain events we’ve already observed in recent decades will continue to accelerate. Unfortunately, some of the disseminated flooding information relies on

A survey shows 75 percent of recent Houston flooding from Harvey occurred outside the FEMA flood zones.

People who believe they live in an area outside of the FEMA flood zone may be prone to pay less attention to the threat. If those flood zones are out of date, that threat of being unprepared increases all the more.

Even with good forecasting and advance warning, social scientists and meteorologists know for many people, seeing is still believing. As former National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read told Rolling Stone: “Most people, including myself if I’m really honest about it, are in denial that the bad thing will happen to you.” His experience tells him “forecasters need to personalize the threat.” Newer tools to make visualization of a threat for the public are in development. An overlay on Google Street View will be able to take NWS projected flood levels and show someone how high the water in his neighborhood will be rising, according to Kim Klockow of the University of Oklahoma. That kind of imagery could presumably spur someone to “get the heck out of Dodge” a little sooner and more safely.

As these technologies advance and forecasting capability continues to improve, the NWS may still fall beneath their full potential. In a sense, there has been bipartisan neglect of NOAA’s NWS funding, starting with the Obama administration and worsening under Trump. The NWS has at least 216 important forecasting slots unfilled, with some estimates hundreds higher than that. It’s been a year in which we’ve suffered more weather related fatalities and property damage (still uncounted hundreds of billions in damage) than we’ve experienced in combination.

The National Weather Service costs the average U.S. taxpayer $3 per year. We get a mighty good return on our investment. With warming over much of the globe, the threats to public safety and property are not leveling off. The warning system impacts nearly every citizen in the country. This is not just about dollars and cents; it's about dollars and sense.

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