When Post-tropical Cyclone Sandy slammed into the Delaware/New Jersey coast Monday afternoon, the meteorologists and hydrologists at the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md., were doing what they do every day — gathering data and informing the public about the weather.
“Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year long, the weather doesn’t stop and neither does the National Weather Services and many of the NOAA assets across the country,” Steven Cooper, acting deputy director of National Weather Service, told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Tuesday.
Although NWS, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, serves the public 365 days a year, it ramps up its efforts when storms like Sandy occur.
“We bring extra staffing in to augment staffing to make sure that we have enough people to add around the clock, to make sure we can handle interviews and keep up the reports,” Cooper said.
This week’s storm wreaked a lot of damage up and down the coast, producing coastal flooding and heavy winds. “It moved rather rapidly inward and now it’s slowed down some and it’s producing a lot of rainfall and quite a bit of snowfall, particularly in the West Virginia area,” Cooper said.
While this schedule can be tiring sometimes, Cooper said, like many other agencies, the workload is helped by increased planning and preparation that begins many days before a storm’s arrival.
In addition to the extra personnel, NOAA is able to deploy a variety of aircraft and other assets to track a storm, including the Air Force’s Hurricane Hunters.
“We work with the Air Force and their group of C-130s that have meteorological packages that they put inside the planes,” Cooper said. “And they go through the storms every six hours and provide information back to us into our computers. Sometimes it’s more frequently than that.”
NOAA has two additional types of planes that it uses to track topical storms and hurricanes. One is a P-3 plane, which, like the Hurricane Hunters’ aircraft, flies through storms to gather information.
“We also have a Galaxy 5 class jet that does not fly through the storm but flies around the storm,” Cooper said. “It gathers environmental data all around the storm. Both sets of planes drop what we call ‘dropsondes,’ which are instruments that we drop through the storm to get information around it.”
NOAA typically releases weather balloons twice a day from 92 sites around the country to track weather patterns. The balloons, filled with hydrogen or helium, carry a radiosonde, which measures temperature, humidity and pressure. With this information, NOAA is able to track windspeed and direction of the weather.
“Starting last week … we actually went to four times a day because of the complexity of the storm, across the country,” Cooper said. “We’ve never done that before in the history of the U.S.”
The extra balloons added more information to NOAA’s computer models, which help meteorologists to better forecast the storm.
Like many agencies, NOAA and NWS face tough budget times ahead, but Cooper said his agency would continue to do its job in fair weather or foul.
“We’ll find the money,” he said. “We do this. This is what we have to do. It’s a matter of lives and we take that very seriously.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-8 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.