National Weather Service Albany office reports on changes 10 years after Irene

ALBANY — The National Weather Service this week shared a 10-year retrospective on Tropical Storm Irene, which sparked some of the worst flooding the Capital Region has ever seen on Aug. 28 and 29, 2011.

NWS bureaus in Albany and Boston collaborated this year on the report.

Irene hit North Carolina on Aug. 27 then tracked north along the coast, making landfall again in New Jersey Aug. 28 and moving north along New York state’s eastern border.

Its winds and rain caused billions of dollars worth of damage in the United States. In and near the Capital Region, heavy rains landing on saturated soil in the Adirondack, Catskill and Greene mountains caused epic flooding and extensive damage in the valleys below.

The Schoharie Creek set records for volume as it overflowed and caused proportional misery; the population of Schoharie County shrank more than 9% over the next several years, the most of any county in the state by the 2020 Census.

The NWS report cites some of the technological limitations that existed in August 2011. The ability to convey the scale of flooding threat was particularly limited. 

NWS was able to phone and email local officials about flood watches and warnings, but they were unable to provide focus closer than the county level, or provide specifics beyond a particular river gauge.

In August 2021, NWS provides closer interaction with its partners in government and emergency management during major weather events, including Decision Support Services via phone, email and video conferencing, and in person if needed.

NWS also has a larger amount of data coming its way from trained spotters, the New York Mesonet and the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow network of volunteer weather observers.

The real-time precipitation reports coming from a much larger number of collection points allow meteorologists to use GIS software to create regional maps that forecast river crest and flood impact.

NWS is now developing near-real-time flood inundation mapping for a continuous area along rivers that will show areas likely to flood.

A one-year assessment of Irene published in September 2012 by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration flagged some of the problems that the 2021 assessment says have been or are being addressed.

The NOAA assessment team found gaps in technology, potential for significant gaps in service, growing demand for GIS-compatible products and services, limitations working with broadcast media, a need to improve partnerships with outside groups and  insufficient use of social media and mobile media.

(Irene was one of the first hurricanes in which NWS made extensive use of social media to communicate with the news media and the public.) 

The 2012 NOAA assessment pointed out that:

  • NWS didn’t accurately convey Irene’s threat of a historic degree of flooding, which essentially was flash flooding at times.
  • The Decision Support Services NWS offered to local and state emergency officials were one of its most successful efforts during Irene, and should be expanded.
  • The NWS backup plan was fragile and its primary communications system was insufficient during a high-impact event. The fiber optic cable at the NWS office in Burlington, Vermont, was severed during flooding, nearly putting the office offline and nearly requiring the already-stressed Albany and Caribou, Maine, stations to take over.

The report faulted the Albany office of the NWS for not creating its staffing plan for Irene farther in advance. It also praised the Albany office for providing advanced and accurate flash flood warnings.

A New York state Emergency Management director was quoted in the 2012 assessment saying the Albany office had saved many lives with its proactive stance. A Brattleboro, Vermont, fire chief said a conference call with the Albany Office led his department to evacuate two senior housing complexes a day before they flooded, likely saving lives.

Others quoted in the report pointed out the limitations of communication technology in 2011, saying they’d received no warning from the NWS offices in Albany and Burlington.

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