The highlight of the day was the presentations of Bill Read, Director of the National Hurricane Center, and Craig Fugate, the FEMA Administrator. They both emphasized the same point, that the devastating inland flooding that occurred in the Northeast as a result of Hurricane Irene was forecast well in advance.
Bill Read showed a 5 day inundation forecast map for Irene that was close to what actually occurred. He raised the question: why was the inland flooding a surprise to the public and some emergency managers? He offered the additional point that the areas that ultimately experienced record flooding (northern New Jersey, upstate New York, Vermont) had received considerable rainfall in the previous 10 days and the ground was saturated. Thus, it should have been no surprise that the large quantities of tropical moisture that Irene dumped on these areas created destructive flooding.
Craig Fugate pushed forward the suggestion that the lessons of Katrina may have led people to concentrate on the storm surge threat from Irene to the exclusion of the inland flooding threat. Bill Read raised the possibility that the media focus on the beach, with constant footage of meteorologists before a backdrop of a foaming ocean, may have contributed to the diminishment of the inland flooding threat.
Bill Read also asked: Did the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center do a poor job of communicating the threat?
In an admirable piece of self-criticism, Bill showed a slide that highlighted how the NHC consistently overestimated the strength of Irene. He admitted that after much study there were unable to determine the source of their error. The barometric pressure of the storm is normally highly correlated with the intensity of the wind. In the case of Irene, this correlation did not hold.