Hurricane

El Faro sinking leads NTSB to call for improved hurricane forecasts

Search for survivors of cargo ship that disappeared during Hurricane Joaquin

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Mark Fedor addresses journalists about the search for survivors of El Faro, the cargo ship that disappeared during Hurricane Joaquin. The Coast Guard now believes the ship has sunk, but the search continues for survivors.
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U.S. Coast Guard Captain Mark Fedor addresses journalists about the search for survivors of El Faro, the cargo ship that disappeared during Hurricane Joaquin. The Coast Guard now believes the ship has sunk, but the search continues for survivors.

With hurricane season underway, National Transportation Safety Board investigators looking into the 2015 sinking of El Faro took the unusual step this week of issuing safety recommendations targeting hurricane forecasting — even before they wrap up a final report determining what caused the cargo ship to go down during a Category 3 storm.

The 21-page report, which singles out a 10-year project to improve intensity forecasts, comes as Congress is considering controversial cuts to the agency that oversees hurricane research.

Under a budget proposed by President Donald Trump, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration project to improve forecasting hurricane intensity would be cut by a third. On Thursday, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee recommended slashing NOAA’s 2018 budget to $4.87 billion, a $710 million decrease.

In a response Friday, NOAA said it agreed with the NTSB recommendations and the need for better forecast tools, which it said was bolstered by a hurricane and weather innovation act proposed under the Obama administration and signed by Trump earlier this year. The report found forecasters miscalculated intensity on at least four storms since 2015.

“We've come a long way in improving hurricane forecasts, but we also recognize the need for continued improvements,” NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro said in an email.

joaquin from space
A view of Hurricane Joaquin taken from the International Space Station on Oct. 2, the day after the cargo ship El Faro disappeared in the Bahamas. NASA

The 790-foot-long cargo ship went missing on Oct. 1, 2015, during its weekly run from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico. Despite hurricane warnings, Capt. Michael Davidson told ship owner Tote Maritime Puerto Rico that he planned to take a course about 65 miles west of worsening Hurricane Joaquin.

Hurricane forecasters later determined that flaws in their forecast when the ship departed were higher than normal, particularly when it came to the storm’s brewing intensity. Because wind shear, which can smother a hurricane, were neither too strong, nor too weak, they struggled to predict how intense the storm might become.

“The tropical cyclone is trying to keep the storm vertically coherent, wind shear is trying to tear it apart, and the forecaster has to decide ... which of those two competing factors is going to win,” National Hurricane Center Branch Chief James Franklin testified in May 2016.

“To this day [I] can’t really tell you why it did so, but that storm was particularly resistant to wind shear,” he said.

The crew also failed to receive regular advisories about the storm’s changing course and intensity through the ship’s satellite system. Although the crew could have seen the advisories through their own devices — the advisories are easily viewed online — NTSB officials concluded that the satellite system, which is required on all ships, should be the source of the information.

Officials also took issue with the timing of advisories tied to a storm’s threat to land. As a result, threats aren’t updated to mariners facing dangerous storm conditions at sea.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to a Senate subcommittee’s budget draft. The draft was proposed by a House of Representatives subcommittee.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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