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CHAPTER 5 USER/MEDIA RESPONSE

5.1 INTRODUCTION

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 follow-up statements. 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. Graphic

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. Graphic 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 office. 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. Graphic 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. Graphic Graphic 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. Graphic Graphic 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. User Interaction 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 been issued. 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 "fantastic." 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 levels." "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 groups. 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. Graphic Return to Table of Contents


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