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The weather doesn't stop

Gary Szatkowski

Gary Szatkowski is Chief Meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, New Jersey. During the lead up to Hurricane Sandy, he managed the forecasts of the NWS, and made sure that emergency managers, government officials, and the general public were aware of the potential impacts of the storm. In the aftermath, he helped to keep his staff in high spirits and made sure the forecasts continued going out. In his narrative, he shares his thoughts on what the NWS did right and what they have learned from the storm, as well as his experiences during the storm


One of the biggest struggles that you guys had was the over the labelling of Sandy as a hurricane or a post-tropical storm. But you’ve said that the issue with Hurricane Sandy wasn’t a labeling issue, it’s a social science issue. How important was the label of “hurricane” in getting people to respond to Hurricane Sandy?

I think one of the terms that people sometimes hear is “good bedside manner.” It shouldn’t be a false choice between saying you have a really well qualified doctor or a doctor with a good bedside manner. I think the choice should be between a well-qualified doctor and a well-qualified doctor with a good bedside manner. I think what the challenge for the Weather Services has been is to develop that better bedside manner. We’re very good from a science standpoint but we tend to speak in the language of scientists. It can be hard to understand us if you’re part of the general public. We may think we’re crystal clear and clinically we may be crystal clear, but if what we’re expecting you to do is evacuate a home or shut down a business or if you’re a governor or a mayor that makes some really big, tough decisions we should probably talk in a language you understand, not the language we’re comfortable with.

One of the things I told people is that a label is designed to get your attention. A label is how you get someone’s attention. You’re busy with your life, you’ve got things to worry about, you know, you got stuff to do later today or something important coming up on the weekend and weather’s a little buzz in the background and somebody uses the word hurricane [and] you kind of start to devote attention to that. “Did they just say hurricane? Why did they just say hurricane?” And that’s the part where you pivot from the label to impact. You pivot from talking about just a hurricane, and assuming everyone knows exactly what that means, to talking about the impacts, which people a lot of the times relate to much better.

If the impact is five feet of water coming into your house, quite frankly you should not worry that much about whether it’s being caused by a hurricane, a nor’easter, or the Martians. You should worry that there is five feet of water that could be in your house. You want to undoubtedly get out of there before it arrives. You may want to move stuff to your second story. You may want to move stuff up. You may want to move stuff out and just get it out of harm’s way. That’s the thing you focus on. It’s doesn’t hurt to know the label and the kind of understand the label at a basic level and to hear the label. It may trigger an emotional reaction which then [can be] harnessed in some very valuable ways.

Somehow they have a certain expectation based on a label of a hurricane, and they’re now making some very important judgements to evacuate or not based on that label. This is where people are taking technical information and applying it to their real life, their current day to day life, and in some cases they’re making some very good decisions and some cases they’re making some terrible decisions, but I don’t think you correct those bad decisions by providing them with even more technical information. It’s not a technical problem it’s some other type of problem.

We started doing briefing packages for Sandy seven days in advance of the storm. We had a lot of people choose to evacuate from the Jersey shore, but some did not, and every story I saw afterwards is someone who didn’t evacuate. It was a terrible, terrible mistake you know but they were told to evacuate. I really don’t think if we start briefing packages eight days in advance or nine days in advance that some lightbulb would have come on and [they would have] said oh ok now we should evacuate. These people were operating with some other information that was not technical in nature that was causing them not to evacuate, and if you want them to evacuate the next time you better understand what’s going on and you better start tailoring your message. I’m not suggesting falsifying anything, I’m suggesting people react to graphics and imagery. A satellite photo of a hurricane can be very compelling, a radar can be very compelling, you know, pictures of previous storm damage can be compelling, so there’s things you can use along with text.

During the lead up to Sandy, you had all of the normal warnings but you specifically also thought “hey, maybe I should send out a personal plea and see if that has more impact.” How did you arrive at that decision and how do you feel knowing that it may well have saved lives?

Frankly I wished the storm hadn’t hit New Jersey. That wasn’t in the cards, and so I’m glad I could persuade. I received some personal communication here from people, you know general public, telling how that worked to help convince family members. So yeah that was rewarding.

As far as what was the genesis behind that was, well, Sandy was my sort of first active foray with Twitter and I was getting feedback from a couple of different sources who were down in Atlantic City and that there were still quite a few people around. Some people were talking to me, saying there are still a lot of people down there and I realized that people were staying in harm’s way. It was painfully obvious the options are running out. The storm was like 36 hours before landfall. There’s no way it’s gonna miss us at this point so that’s what led to the personal plea.

I’ll talk with you about why there were people in Atlantic City. A story that to my knowledge has not been well explored, I would say. It has to go back to Irene. There was a mandatory evacuation called for Irene and a lot of folks evacuated out of Atlantic City. They got on the buses and they were sent to different evacuations centers set up in various locations and I’ll just simply say from my personal observation, from people who were involved with that, that the way those folks were treated was shameful. They were treated very poorly. They arrived in facilities that were not prepared to house them and provide them with any support. Some showed up with literally just a bag and they didn’t have a chance to bring any food or water [and] the places they go to didn’t have any. You know, minority population, that’s a population that’s economically less well off than the average resident of New Jersey and I remembered hearing those stories after Irene from people who were involved with that and that was weighing on me.

These were people who had a lot of reluctance to get on the bus. Now Sandy’s coming, they’re being told to evacuate again, and they’re thinking, “man, that was not a good experience a year prior.” It was sort of like you fooled me once, cause there wasn’t really that big of impact in terms of coastal flooding with Irene. There was wind and there was certainly a lot of rain and if you were further inland the rain with Irene certainly produced a lot of flooding, but for Atlantic City a lot of those residents would understandably make the conclusion that I should never have got on that bus for Irene. The way I got treated you know in the evacuation centers was terrible and would have been frankly better if I just stayed back home. I’d rather stay home, put up with the power being out for a day or two than go through what I did. So I was thinking of them.

What did you learn from Sandy and what are you trying to change now that you’ve had that experience?

We actually learned some from reports that have been done with inland river flooding during Sandy. We’re trying to apply these lessons, and that’s how people make decisions to evacuate. If you’re the head of a household you don’t just announce, “Hey, we’re evacuating!” You’re gonna get [consensus]. If you’ve got a spouse if you’ve got older relatives or older relatives or if you’ve got children that’s a process and in actuality what we saw in greater detail from doing studies of inland river flooding is that when the National Weather Service puts out the graphic that shows how high a river’s gonna get in terms of flood stages they figure it out pretty quickly. Then what they do when they get this is they immediately talk to other family members, they talk to friends, and they talk to neighbors. There’s a whole group discussion that begins on “Are you gonna evacuate?” or you know “Well I’m thinking about evacuating. What do you think you’re going to do?” and it’s pretty much a group behavior.

You see some folks who will evacuate no matter what and there’s some folks who won’t evacuate no matter what but there’s a significant number, and it could be the majority, in the middle that kind of go as a group. In those groups they kind of reach critical mass. It’s sort of like a pot. You have to heat the pot and it finally starts to bubble and it finally gets to the point where it reaches a boil and off it goes. A lot of the times a group will make the right decision, it just takes time. So one of the things we’ve learned is they will make the right decision if you give them good information in a format or a form that they can understand. If you confuse them technically you just they’re just gonna paralyze them. Which means they probably won’t evacuate. And if you don’t give it to them with enough lead time some just won’t make the right decision because they don’t have enough time to make the call. You need to get the message out early. You need to talk in a consistent language and in a language that’s easily understood by the general public and you need to start early. Don’t wait.

We were doing briefing packages seven days in advance. The watches came out like 36 to 48 hours in advance. Governor Christies was calling evacuations decisions before even a watch was in place. He was reacting to briefing packages. We were on conference calls to the state offices of emergency management, we were briefing them on what we saw and what we thought the impacts were. They’re making decisions based on that. So if you craft the message well and say it consistently and repeat that message you’ll get a very good result. That’s something we’ve learned. Now is the Weather Service changing when it’s going to issue its watches and warning? No. Has the Weather Service completely learned that message? No, I would say not. But we have the freedom at this office to engage in those discussion with emergency managers well before a watch or a warning is needed. I think we learned lots and even more for future events.

So Sandy hits. You’ve got the aftermath. What were your thoughts right after the storm hit?

Well right after the storm hit was sort of uh exhaustion. A lot of our work, a lot of the heaviest lifting, is prior to the event. It doesn’t get easier but it doesn’t get a whole lot harder when the event hits. You’re reacting to the event as it’s ongoing. In the event conference calls die down, too, and everyone just hunkers down and rides the event out. People don’t really want to be in a phone call while the winds are howling, they’re trying to get through the event.

There was a lot a lot of bad stuff going on but there was a storm coming five, six days after Sandy. The weather got colder in the wake of Sandy and we had snow. Everyone was overcoming sort of the shock of Sandy and kind of just starting to pull the pieces back together and then the emergency managers started to reach out to us probably about 24 hours after Sandy made landfall saying, “We’re hearing about another storm coming,” and we’re like “Yeah, we’re going to start talking to you about that.” We couldn’t be prouder of the staff, they gave everything they had to give during Sandy, but the weather doesn’t stop. The the weather was quiet there for a couple of days and that let us kind of catch our breath and then we had to start working again regarding the next storm.

Joe Miketta, the primary for outreach to Emergency Managers and the media, and I both worked through the weekend prior to Sandy and we had been here nine days straight and I could see him looking at me and we were both dog tired. I looked at him, cause this next storm was coming, and you know every once in a while I pull rank as boss just to remind people I am I am the boss, and I said, “You’re going home.” Cause he was going to talk me into going home. I said “And then I’ll go home. You get one day off. You go home tomorrow. I don’t want to see you around here. And I’m coming in tomorrow. And I’m yeah I’m tired but I’ll be here tomorrow but I won’t be here the next day, but you have to be here the next day.”

You have to watch your staff. You’ve got some folks who will tell you when they’re getting tired and you got some folks who don’t wanna let you down and they won’t take themselves out of the line of fire even when they’re at the point when they’re starting to be in danger of making bad decisions. As a supervisor you have to watch for that. My staff worked really, really hard but we were very proactive in terms of this thing. A lot of them were dealing with power outages at home, they had family members at home, some people took a little property damage. When they weren’t here they were at home cleaning up, so we tried to balance all of that.

In the aftermath of Sandy, with so many houses without power, did you face any challenges getting weather forecasts out to people?

We made sure people knew how to get information. We talked a lot with our emergency management partners. They had to use sort of non-traditional means. They might typically get their weather information from the internet over the desktop and might be real familiar and have their favorite bookmarks and now that’s not working for whatever reason but they can pick up a cell phone signal. So then were maneuvering them onto our [mobile website]. How with your cellphone how to look at mobile We were doing a lot of that. If you couldn’t get it this way, what else do you have access to and they told us something else that we knew would work. We would you know take them through that process and give them a quick tutorial on how to access it.

Some places were just dead zones. Some portions of Monmouth and Ocean counties there was no electricity, there was no cell phone signal. FEMA set up a disaster field office somewhere in far western Mercer and we were talking to them. They were actually grabbing screenshots of our webpage with the pertinent information, printing it out, printing out a bunch of copies of it, and sending it off with the people who were driving in further east and to the zones hardest hit so they knew what the weather forecast was. They could leave copies with people working in the zones so they would know what the weather forecast was. So in some cases they were handing out paper copies. They told us what they wanted and said, here, this is what part of our webpage you want to go where you can kind of get what you want on one page. You can screen capture that or if it’ll print for you just hit print. Make as many copies as you want, take it with you. So yeah that was some of that in the couple of weeks after Sandy.

Do you think we’re ready for another big storm?

I think we’re better off. The biggest problem we faced during Sandy was they thought it was Irene round two. The biggest problem we’ll face with the next big storm is people think it’s Sandy round two. You can’t assume the next storm is going to be like the last one. Generals lose wars that way, figuring the next battle is going to be like the last battle. So that will be our biggest challenge.

But I do think the Weather Service was a trusted source for a lot of folks in the run up to Sandy. I think the Weather Service became a more trusted to source to people after Sandy. So more people will be aware of the information that’s available and sort of be positioned to leverage it. I think they’ll have better tools to work with. I think we learned lessons from Sandy and I see them being applied. So I think in those ways we’re better off come next time. They’ll be some new lessons with a big weather event in the future but I think I think that’ll always so.

How do you think you’re going to remember Sandy? How do you think the general public will remember Sandy?

I think what people, the general public, will remember from Sandy is the shock of seeing things they’d never seen before. That no one had ever told them about. No one alive had ever seen anything like Sandy. They’d been told about that but there’s a lot a lot between being told about something [and] seeing something with your own eyes. And for the general public, that was really one of the big takeaways, the amount of damage. Even Governor Christie, I heard the shock in his voice. It wasn’t just tiredness, he was shocked by the amount of damage. When they saw those first pictures come daylight Tuesday there was shock. So shock is how the general public will remember Sandy.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget Sandy. I think I’ll always remember it as a very demanding experience that the office stood up and met. They met that challenge in every way. They were physically and emotionally exhausted when they were done and they met they stood up to Sandy. They did they did not flinch or break from Sandy. That’s what I’ll remember both for myself personally and for the office really as a whole.

Interviewed by Conor Reid
Assisted by Jennifer Frascella and Ken Rubin
Edited by Conor Reid
Mount Holly, New Jersey
Recorded March 17, 2015