Hurricane Sandy is being called the worst storm to hit the northeast United States in most of our lifetimes. I can’t objectively say whether that is true, but from watching the coverage of the destruction, it certainly seems plausible.
But there is one thing of which I am certain: it was the greatest forecast I’ve ever seen.
Using the best meteorological models we have, myriad observational data sets, along with their own skills and experience, the forecasters of the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) were able to forecast the path, strength, and timing of Hurricane Sandy’s rampage across the northeast with remarkable precision and lead time. In fact, the forecasts warned of potentially major impacts in the northeast U.S. five days in advance, despite the fact that it was a very anomalous event.
What’s more is that the forecasters didn’t pull any punches once Sandy became inevitable. Consider this statement from the Mt. Holly, NJ NWS office. The Meteorologist in Charge, Gary Szatkowski, was certain enough about the forecast and so concerned about the impacts that he implored people to heed the warnings and volunteered to happily endure their verbal abuse if the forecast was wrong. I encourage you to read his personal plea on slide 12 – that is some serious passion.
The forecast was right on and many preparations were made (schools and businesses closed, areas evacuated, planes, trains, and buses canceled or re-routed, among much more). Despite all these efforts, it is estimated (here and here, for example) that Sandy will have cost up to $20 billion when all is said and done. Sandy was a tragedy for many people that is still unfolding as of this writing. But from a meteorological perspective, it was a resounding success – easily one of the greatest forecasts of all time.
Which leads me to the point of this post: Ultimately, the warnings and preparation saved lives, which is the primary objective of the NWS. But how much money did it save?
Do you think that five days lead time allowed for enough preparation to have saved even 5% of the ultimate cost of the storm? Think of all the plans that were changed and people that weren’t stuck. Think of all the sand bags laid down and places that weren’t flooded as a result. Think of all the windows that didn’t break because they were boarded up. Think of all the food, gas, and other vital commodities purchased ahead of time at normal cost. Think of the crews pre-staged. Think of the ships moved out of port and the private boats secured. Think of all the things I can’t even think of. Isn’t it possible that all that preparation reduced the damage by even 5% compared to what it might have been without it?
Because I’d like to tell you that the entire budge of the NWS is less than 5% of the estimated cost of hurricane Sandy. That’s right, the entire NWS budget for fiscal year 2012 was $988 million*, for everything – every forecast, every warning of every kind, every observation, every satellite picture, every radar scan, every employee, every thing. If you can imagine that all that lead time and all those dire warnings for Hurricane Sandy saved America and Americans just 5%, then the NWS paid for itself with just that storm alone.
However, that doesn’t count the other 51 weeks and all the other locations and all the other services they provide.
Every time a commercial flight takes off and lands safely, there was a forecast for those airports. Every time you drive across a pass that was plowed, DOT crews probably received a forecast that started at the NWS that helped them do it. Every time a crew puts out a wildfire, they got forecasts from the NWS to help them do it and keep them safe. Every time your local TV weathercaster splashes a forecast on the screen, he or she likely used data and model forecasts that came from the NWS. Every tornado, blizzard, hurricane, or flood warning you see came from the NWS. Every satellite image and nearly every radar image you see comes from the NWS. Everywhere in the U.S. and at several locations overseas, there are meteorologists issuing forecasts and warnings intended to protect you and enable commerce 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Overall, extreme weather is estimated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research to cost the U.S. economy $485 billion annually, or 3.4% of our GDP. Could the forecasts, warnings, and other services issued by the NWS mitigate those costs by even 1%? Because, if so, the benefit of even a 1% savings amounts to 5 times the NWS budget. All the precautions taken as a result of all the effort by the NWS for all storms year-round, must have lessened the impact of weather by a mere 1/5 of 1%!
Is the NWS perfect? No. But I think it is plain to see that it is one government agency that pays for itself – in terms of increased societal productivity, decreased loss of property, and most importantly, in terms of lives saved. I’ve said that before, but the forecasts and warnings for Hurricane Sandy make this startlingly clear.
Please remember that the next time your elected representatives consider a bill that affects the NWS budget. Note: earlier this year, the agency tried to cut its technology experts to save money. Fortunately, that was rescinded, but its budget is expected to be on the chopping block next year, no matter who is elected president. Considering the benefit it produces, does that make any sense?
By the way, here is an incredible satellite loop of the entire life of Hurricane Sandy, collected, not coincidentally, from NWS satellites.
*That’s about 3 cents per day per resident.
Corrected a couple of typos on 11/7/2012.