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Overall, media coverage relating to the Northeast Floods of January 1996, the worst
flooding in more than 10 years across the mid-Atlantic region, was mostly positive.
News stories focused on the cause and extent of the flooding, human interest stories,
and recovery efforts, and accurately highlighted the weather as it developed across the
region. However, the performance of the National Weather Service (NWS) became the
subject of media debate in the Pittsburgh area. Furthermore, the Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania conducted investigative hearings to evaluate NWS produces and services.
The February 4 issue of Newsweek credited the NWS for the advance warnings of the
flooding: "Modernized equipment allowed the National Weather Service in January to
warn the eastern U.S. of flash floods up to 24 hours before major rivers crested.
State-of-the-art Doppler radars monitored rainfall, while a new computer network let
the service swap data in real time with states and counties."
5.2 PUBLIC AWARENESS
On January 15-16, before the event, all NWS offices in the region issued Flood
Potential Statements so the public and media were aware that spring-like ice jam
flooding would occur. Throughout the flood-ravaged areas, radio and television
broadcasts were the primary source of information for most citizens. Most radio and
television stations aired watches and warnings as soon as they received them. All local
Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) radio and television stations aired watch and
warning information beginning Thursday before the event.
Generally, public awareness of the flooding potential was high because of the early
flood potential and warning statements and the coordination with emergency managers.
However, because the flood forecasts were updated frequently to account for the rapid
snow melt and resulting run-off, the media, emergency managers, and the public
expressed frustration, at times, that NWS forecasts often updated river stage and crest
data to reflect the fluctuating conditions.
Based on NWS forecasts and warnings, and damage that occurred early Friday
morning, January 19, many county and city officials in New York and Pennsylvania
declared a state of emergency. By 6:15 p.m. EST, Wyoming County in Pennsylvania
began evacuating citizens in Jenningsville at the lower end of Mehoopany Creek, and
along State Route 4003. Shelters were opened for people who were evacuated. That
area of Pennsylvania was also experiencing several severe thunderstorms and high
winds during the early part of Friday afternoon. The Binghamton staff covered both
the flooding and severe weather in well-written and frequent short-term forecasts and
School children were released early Friday afternoon, January 19, across most of
northeast Pennsylvania because school officials feared many roads would be closed by
midafternoon. The Binghamton staff also provided forecast support to fire officials for
fires which destroyed two businesses. Those fires compounded the hardship of the
people already affected by the flooding. Fireman were using boats and standing waist-
deep in flood water to extinguish the fires.
5.3 MEDIA INTERACTION
The media is a critical component of the overall warning process. In addition to
NOAA Weather Radio (NWR), NOAA Weather Wire Service (NWWS), and the
emergency management community, the primary means of communicating the onset
and dangers of severe weather events to the general public is through the news media.
Media coverage of the Northeast Floods of January 1996 was extensive before, during,
and after the event. Hundreds of media inquiries stemmed from national, regional, and
local media outlets across the area. Many stations broke normal programming to
provide up-to-the-minute reports of flood forecasts, flood damage, and evacuation
notifications. NWS forecast offices were proactive in preparing the media for the
potential flooding situation. Broadcast media outlets played an important role in
preparing the public for the flooding by stressing the potential for high water and
quickly disseminating NWS warnings and forecasts.
All of the Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD) Weather Service Forecast
Offices (NWSFO) in the affected areas reported high levels of media inquiries
throughout their warning areas. The nature of the calls focused on the latest
observations and forecasts, as well as relating the current flooding to historical events
such as Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and the 1936 floods. While most of the calls were
handled by the Service Hydrologists (SH), the sheer volume of calls made it necessary
for the Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM), the Meteorologist-in-Charge
(MIC), and the Lead Forecaster to assist in handling public and media inquiries at the
same time they were making forecasting decisions. The NWSFO in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, designated a spokesperson to handle all of the media calls to ensure a
consistent message throughout the event.
The disaster survey team contacted several media outlets, including daily newspapers
and television and radio stations in the impacted areas. Reporters noted the cooperation
between the NWS and the local emergency management agencies, the timeliness of
information, and the responsiveness to media interviews. Following are comments
received in interviews with members of several media outlets.
Byron Spice, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, said that while the paper receives
daily weather information from a private meteorological service and wire
service, they have an excellent working relationship with the local NWS
Joe DeNardo, WTAE Television in Pittsburgh, said the information
provided by the NWS was informative and valuable. He also stated that
he would like to receive information earlier in order to prepare a graphic
and other materials for the upcoming newscast.
Jayne Etter, Shenandoah Valley Herald, Virginia, said she was
concerned that the NWS did not provide enough lead time about the
magnitude of the flooding on the Shenandoah River.
Tony Cavalier, WSAZ Television, Charleston, West Virginia, commended the
NWS for the timely and precise information. He noted that his viewers often are
confused by flood stage, crests, and other pertinent information. Mr. Cavalier
plans on developing a series on flood preparedness activities.
Some broadcast media representatives noted they would like to see minor changes when
products are released by the NWSFO so they coincide with the television air times.
These comments did not impact the overall ability to communicate the potential dangers
of the situation to the public through the media.
Historical information as part of the NWS products help the media communicate the
dangers and severity of the event in terms the general public can understand.
The media plays an important role in disseminating NWS products to the public. Some
stations broke normal programming to provide up-to-the-minute reports of flood
forecasts, flood damage, and evacuation notifications.
Some radio stations and all television stations participate in the Federal Communication
Commission (FCC) sanctioned Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). When critical
warnings are issued by the NWS, or a state of emergency is called by a county or local
community, EBS is activated to alert or warn citizens of impending danger and what
precautions to take to prevent loss of life or property.
The Weather Channel also provided specific cable area NWS forecasts, warnings, and
radar information. However, The Weather Channel did not scroll hydrologic products
such as Flood Statements. In addition, only the first two pages of warnings, if they
exceeded two pages in length, were broadcast. Products with an expiration time
exceeding 24 hours from the time of issuance were discarded and not broadcast.
Consequently, NWSFO Pittsburgh prepared all products with expiration times less than
24 hours to ensure they would be broadcast.
Images of cars and trucks crossing flooded streets which are broadcast on local
television and featured in the newspapers communicate the wrong message. For
example, in Binghamton, New York, where signs first indicated that roads were closed,
the local police waded in the water and gave numerous tickets to people who ignored
the signs and attempted to cross the roads. Overall, at least 10 of the known dead were
killed due to crossing flooded roads. While these videos and photos make for powerful
news, and will continue to be on the air and in print, they create a false sense of
security in drivers that they will be rescued in time.
The survey team found that the NWS has a strong relationship with direct users of
NWS products and services including the emergency management community, the
COE, and water resources management agencies.
All public safety officials received appropriate service as evidenced by the early
evacuations that took place in New York and Pennsylvania. Notification of the
possible flood event began as early as Monday, January 15, 4 days before the flooding.
A query of Pittsburgh emergency managers revealed that 35 out of 36 counties in the
County Warning Area (CWA) received timely warnings.
The NWS had frequent contacts with other government agencies such as the U.S.
Geological Survey (USGS), the COE, state-level emergency management officials, and
state conservation or environmental divisions. Those agencies noted that they received
good support from the NWS offices and had excellent working relations with them
during and before the event. For example, constant contact between the NEXRAD
Weather Service Office (NWSO) State College and the City of Harrisburg engineer
affected the evacuation of several hundred people including the family of the Governor
of Pennsylvania. Emergency managers in the hardest hit areas in Pennsylvania were
satisfied with warnings provided by the NWS, although like any record event, it would
have been better if longer outlooks concerning the magnitude of this event could have
In addition to issuing Flood Potential Statements, flood watches, and warnings, field
offices made hundreds of phone calls during the period from Thursday, January 18,
through Sunday, January 21. Follow-up phone calls were made to county
communications centers relaying most Flood Warnings issued by the NWS office. In
an event such as this, offices wanted to ensure that county and city public safety
officials received warnings that affected their specific county or community. These
calls were also used to obtain flood information from county and city officials and to
provide them with additional forecast details.
Following are a few examples of user feedback:
A letter from the Superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historical
Park credits the NWSFO in Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC,
with its excellent work. "Although the park suffered a tremendous
amount of damage as a result of the high water, we were able to act
quickly and effectively in moving property which could be out of harm's
way as a result of your advanced warnings and predictions."
Emergency management agencies and the COE echoed the cooperation
and partnership between them and NWS agencies. User feedback found
that the warnings were received in a timely fashion.
Emergency Management Director from Lawrence County,
Pennsylvania, commented that this had been his best experience ever
working with the NWS.
Emergency Management Director from Hancock County, West
Virginia, said that the people he worked with at the NWS were
The Mayor of Wellsburg, West Virginia, noted: "If not for the
Weather Service forecast, Wellsburg would have suffered a great loss in
property and maybe even lives. By your early warnings and updating of
the forecast we were able to notify property owners of rising river
"We take your information and pass it along as gospel," said Tom
Burns, State Emergency Manager, West Virginia.
During a post-flood meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, users noted they would welcome
more frequent and additional information such as historical data on river gages and
other collection points; comparisons to previous flood events; and "worst case
scenario" and flood potential products to aid them in relating the magnitude of the
current situation to past events. Senior hydrologists at NWS offices spent a great deal
of time throughout the event faxing background data from the E19s to various user
Each office should conduct follow-up surveys with users and the media. The
information obtained from these surveys will identify what worked and what did not,
and serve as the foundation for public outreach efforts, special media workshops, and
improvements in products. The NWS, emergency managers, the media, and other
appropriate parties should consider conducting joint emergency preparedness exercises.
About 30 percent of the Emergency Managers within the CWA for NWSFO Pittsburgh
used a pager system (USA Mobile) to maintain a direct link with the forecast office. A
query of emergency managers revealed that 35 (of 36) counties in the CWA received
timely warnings. The Emergency Manager for Columbiana County, Ohio, was the
only exception, and he stated that he didn't receive the Flood Warning until 7 hours
after issuance. A testament to the effectiveness of their warning dissemination system
was the fact that no deaths or significant injuries were reported in Pittsburgh's CWA.
A comprehensive survey was conducted in Pittsburgh's CWA, including emergency
managers from each county; State Emergency Management Operations Officers from
Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio; and special users (Waterways Association, City of
Pittsburgh Emergency Management, COE Pittsburgh District, and the U.S. Coast
Guard). Additionally, unsolicited feedback was provided by many users to include the
mayors of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Wellsburg, West Virginia, the Hancock
County Sheriff's Department, Waterways Association, and the Monongahela and
Allegheny Parking Wharfs. In general, users stated they received warnings through the
Pennsylvania EMA ECOMMS system, the Pennsylvania and Ohio State Police circuits,
NAWAS, NWR, and pagers. Some users were notified through the Pennsylvania
EMA ECOMMS computer information system while others said they also received
warnings over the CLEAN (state police) network. Additionally, two users received
warnings via USA Mobile pager and one on NWR.
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