Hurricane Center hopes to thwart maritime disasters like El Faro

The National Hurricane Center is hoping to thwart maritime disasters such as the 2015 sinking of the cargo ship El Faro by training with the cruise and cargo shipping industries on storm forecasting during severe weather events.

Center Director Rick Knabb said meteorologists met with representatives from both groups and the U.S. Coast Guard in May to discuss how the center can better get the most timely forecasts to people responsible for routing ships at sea.

Knabb mentioned the effort during a congressional hearing of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, when asked about the ongoing federal investigation into the El Faro sinking. The 737-foot ship went down near the Bahamas in Hurricane Joaquin, killing all 33 crew members.

National Transportation Board photo of El Faro on bottom of sea floor.
National Transportation Board photo of El Faro on bottom of sea floor.

“We are just as concerned about saving lives at sea as we are saving lives on land,” Knabb said. “We have our tropical analysis and forecast branch doing forecasting for the offshore waters and high seas over millions of square miles 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

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The NTSB is launching a mission this month JULYto recover the data voice recorder from El Faro, which is sitting in 15,000 feet of water near Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

But El Faro wasn’t the only ship to get caught in a storm in the past year. Royal Caribbean’s 1,100-foot Anthem of the Seas luxury liner was rocked by a powerful low pressure system in February that rolled up the eastern seaboard.

Anthem of the Seas
Anthem of the Seas

The company initially called the storm unexpected, but meteorologists had predicted hurricane-force gales. Royal Caribbean later apologized, saying the incident “identified gaps” in its planning system.

Passengers filed multiple lawsuits in federal court following what one plaintiff described as “hours of sheer terror” where cruise-goers experienced a “reasonable fear of death.”

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New Jersey passenger Frank DeLuca said in his lawsuit that the fear was amplified by the knowledge of what happened to El Faro.

Photo provided in the DeLuca lawsuit to Anthem of the Seas.
Photo provided in the DeLuca lawsuit to Anthem of the Seas.

“Just months after one of the worst maritime tragedies in recent history, (Royal Caribbean’s) knowing, intentional and reckless conduct subjects it to the imposition of punitive damages,” the lawsuit states.

Knabb said he was surprised to learn that some of the decisions on how to route ships during voyages are made by decision makers on land interpreting National Hurricane Center forecasts or other weather predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

“We are trying to understand the entire landscape and meet our partners’ needs as best we can by getting together in person to do training and exercises just like we do with our land-based emergency managers,” Knabb said. “We learn from one another through mock scenarios so that when the real thing happens, everyone makes the best decision.”

The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that several companies participated in the April meeting with the National Hurricane Center.

Hurricane Joaquin on Sept. 30, 2016 at 11:45 a.m. Credits: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team
Hurricane Joaquin on Sept. 30, 2016 at 11:45 a.m. Credits: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

“The industry has and will continue to have a relationship with the National Hurricane Center,” the statement said.

TOTE Maritime, which owned El Faro, didn’t respond to a question about whether representatives attended the NHC meeting, but did send the following statement:

“Our goal throughout the investigation is to learn everything possible about the loss of our crew and vessel. Out of respect for our seafarers and for every seafarer here and around the world, it is critical that we understand what contributed to this accident.”

In May, executives of the California- based company Applied Weather Technology, which provided forecast information to El Faro, were grilled at U.S. Coast Guard hearings about the timeliness of forecasts the ship received, specifically on Sept. 30, when Tropical Storm Joaquin grew to hurricane force.

El-Faro-photo

According to the testimony of AWT executives Jerry Hale and Rich Brown, a forecast sent to El Faro in the early hours of Sept. 30 did not include an updated graphic track for the storm. The wind and wave information, however, were updated and correct with each release.

But because of a normal three-hour delay between when the National Hurricane Center gathers the information and releases it, subsequent delays at AWT for processing and a mistake that led to the same track forecast going out twice, El Faro didn’t get an accurate storm track until 21 hours after information was originally gathered.

“For some reason, an anomaly that we have not reproduced or identified — the tropical storm file was not updated,” Hale said in a Wednesday hearing. “What went out was the tropical text file from the previous outlook.”

A report last year compiled for the Cruise Lines International Association found just 12 incidents of storm or wave damage to cruise ships between 2009 and 2014.

But that included one high profile brush between 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and the cruise ship Disney Fantasy.

“There was a moment in the night where the ship tilted so far to the right that the furniture moved across our room,” said passenger David Evans in a CNN iReport about the incident. “If you think about how far a 13th story ship has to tilt for furniture to move, it says a lot.”

Hurricane Sandy was also responsible for sinking a replica of the 1787 Royal Naval sailing ship the Bounty, which went down off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C. on Oct. 29, 2012.

A replica of the Bounty went down off the coast of North Carolina in Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
A replica of the Bounty went down off the coast of North Carolina in Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

A National Transportation Safety Board report blamed Bounty Capt. Robin Walbridge for the sinking, saying his “reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy, subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover.”

Two people died on the Bounty, including Walbridge, whose body was never found.

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Search resumes for clues in El Faro mystery

The search for clues into the sinking of the cargo ship El Faro resumes today as National Transportation Safety Board tries again to retrieve the vessel’s data recorder.

El Faro sank near the Bahamas during the Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin in late September early October.

All 33 crew members were killed when the 41-year-old ship went down.

National Transportation Board photo of El Faro on bottom of sea floor.
National Transportation Board photo of El Faro on bottom of sea floor.

The safety board initially halted searches for the data recorder earlier this year after they proved fruitless. But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked that the search be restarted because of the need to understand what happened in the tragedy.

“The ship’s data recorder is just too important,” Nelson said in February.

In negligence lawsuits filed in federal court by families of the crew, maritime experts debate the path from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico chosen by El Faro’s captain and whether he followed early forecasts that proved faulty or purposefully drove head-on into the storm.

Hurricane Joaquin was a notoriously difficult storm to forecast.

“I don’t know what the captain was thinking, but maybe he did put too much faith in the initial ideas of what this storm was going to do and thought it would be long gone by the time he got to where it was,” said Dan Kottlowski, a senior meteorologist and hurricane expert with the Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather. “Initially, we thought this thing would move northwest and not bother land at all, but it went southwest.”

Hurricane Joaquin was never expected to reach Category 4 strength
Hurricane Joaquin was never expected to reach Category 4 strength

The second El Faro search beginning today is being conducted with the National Science Foundation and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The research vessel Atlantis will search the accident site for 10 days carrying an autonomous underwater vehicle to search for the data recorder.

While the El Faro wreckage was found in November, the upper two decks of the ship, including the navigation bridge, were sheared from the ship’s hull. They were found about a half mile away on the ocean floor. The main mast of El Faro and the data recorder were not found.

Joaquin was unusual in that it evolved from a non-tropical, upper-level low-pressure system instead of a tropical wave more common during hurricane season.

That early quirk was key because it is rare for systems with non-tropical features to become major hurricanes. Meteorologists first noted the emerging system Sept. 8 west of the Canary Islands but, according to the NHC report, “forecasters were unable to recognize that tropical cyclone formation was even a possibility until 48 hours before genesis occurred.”

Hurricane Joaquin, Oct. 2 2015
Hurricane Joaquin, Oct. 2 2015

Is the hurricane cone of uncertainty outdated as a communication tool?

The National Hurricane Center is struggling to improve its communication with the public after two difficult forecasts last year triggered premature preparations and confusion. 

The challenge is how to convey the uncertainty of forecasts when the confidence of predictions, such as for Tropical Storm Erika and Hurricane Joaquin, is low.

New storm surge maps go into effect for the 2016 hurricane season.
New storm surge maps go into effect for the 2016 hurricane season.

Improvements include working closer with the media, but some of the effort is also on the introduction of new products and an emphasis on lesser-used tools already available that focus on the impact of storms over just the forecast cone.

In fact, during a discussion at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando this morning, a panel that included National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb, questioned whether the storm forecast cone is obsolete.

The cone only deals with location, without consideration of forecast uncertainty, storm surge concerns or wind speed probabilities.

The path of Tropical Storm Erika had most of the state in its cone at one point, but never made it past Hispaniola.
The path of Tropical Storm Erika had most of the state in its cone at one point, but never made it past Hispaniola.

“I’ve had a long-standing problem with the cone and believe it has outlived its benefits,” said Craig Setzer, a chief meteorologist for WFOR-TV in Miami and a panel member. “That was evident with Erika and Joaquin when people saw the cone five days out and believed the hurricane would be approaching the coast in that time frame.”

Tropical Storm Erika, once forecast to become a Category 1 hurricane with Florida in its sights, never made it past Hispaniola.

This year, the National Hurricane Center is introducing new storm surge maps that will show how far inland forecasters believe water will go and how deep it could get.

The first map will usually be issued at the same time as the initial hurricane watch or, in some cases, with a tropical storm watch. The map is based on the latest forecast track and intensity for the tropical cyclone, and takes into account likely forecast errors.

Already in use are wind speed probability maps, but Knabb acknowledged they don’t get as much attention as the cone and can be difficult to interpret.

During Erika, the risk of hurricane- force winds hitting Palm Beach County never went above 4 percent. The risk for tropical storm-force winds was 50 percent at its highest.

Wind speed probabilities with Tropical Storm Erika.
Wind speed probabilities with Tropical Storm Erika.

“We know the cone has serious limitations,” Knabb said. “We are trying to create useful, snazzy, beneficial new products. We realize we can’t just leave the cone graphic the way it is forever.”

What the Palm Beach Post wrote: Tropical Storm Erika difficult to forecast. 

Also newly implemented after Erika, where Florida declared a state of emergency although watches and warnings were never issued for the state, are talking points that boil down what hurricane forecasters want the public to know without the technical jargon that can be present in the formal forecast discussions.

“It’s surprising how complex communicating a hurricane can be,” said Setzer. “People hear my message and come up with a totally different response.”

Talking points created after communication problems with Tropical Storm Erika.
Talking points created after communication problems with Tropical Storm Erika.