Thursday, September 23, 2004

Warning too late, Marietta complains

Weather Service defends bad forecast

By Lisa Cornwell
The Associated Press

A late-night flood warning for Marietta, Ohio, could not have been issued earlier because forecasters had no way to know that rain from Hurricane Ivan would intensify upriver, a National Weather Service forecaster said Wednesday.

Business owners, residents and city officials say some of the damage caused by severe flooding over the weekend could have been averted if they hadn't been misled by forecasts Friday.

Some residents complained that the Weather Service on Friday canceled a flood warning and then did not issue another one until late Friday night.

About 600 homes and 600 businesses were damaged in Marietta after the Ohio River reached its highest level in 40 years, rising to 9 feet above flood stage Saturday, said Michael Cullums, spokesman for the Washington County Emergency Management Agency. He said about 500 people in Washington County remained away from their homes Wednesday.

Alan Rezek, chief meteorologist for the Weather Service in Charleston, W.Va., said the river usually rises more slowly, allowing several days of warning. It reacted more like a small river last week because of the local drainage from unexpected intensified rain in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, he said.

"We were responding to a very rapidly changing situation," Rezek said.

He said his agency issued the first flood warning last Thursday when the amount of rainfall from the hurricane resulted in a forecast river level of 38 feet, about 4 feet over flood stage. Friday afternoon, the National Weather Service backed off that warning when the information fed into the agency's forecast computer program indicated a level several feet below flood stage.

"We had not been able to predict the intense rainfall that would fall in southwestern Pennsylvania and the mountains of West Virginia, amounts of 6 to 8 inches. When we saw that, we went back to the river forecast model and reran it, issuing the second warning about 11 p.m. Friday night," Rezek said.

Glenn Newman, owner of the damaged Fine Art and Framing and Gift Gallery in downtown Marietta, is not satisfied that the Weather Service gave residents as much warning as possible.

"We were in the midst of 8 inches of rainfall when they canceled the first warning and it was pouring rain in Pittsburgh," he said. "How could they cancel it?"

Newman, who saw floodwaters rise to 3 feet inside his store and lost his delivery van, said he and other merchants could have been more prepared if they had not been lulled by a false sense of security from the cancellation of the first warning

"We live with flooding here, and we can prepare when we know what to expect," he said.

Rezek said the Weather Service's skill at forecasting has increased tremendously, but so have public expectations.

"When you are dealing with a tropical system of this magnitude and unique circumstances, you cannot always give people the type of advance warning they expect," he said.

National Weather Service spokeswoman Marcie Katcher said the agency is conducting a review of the situation.

"We want to see what was done well, what can be done better and how we can apply that information to the future," said Katcher, of the agency's Eastern Regional office.

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