Chapter 5

That Guy Who Told Everyone Hurricane Carl Was Going to Turn Harmlessly Out to Sea

Well, there's no way to sugar coat the devastation Carl caused. People were caught completely unaware--and not the kind of unaware where forecasters, government officials, police with bullhorns and hysterical cable news anchors spend days warning people to prepare for the worst, only to find out later that the people were busy, you know, had a long day, the game was on, same old shit at the office, and that damn dog across the street barking all night. No, this was a surprise, like when you turn around halfway to work because you had a fight with your wife who has made tremendous sacrifices to her career to raise your children and you feel bad and you think a little impromptu making up while the kids are at school will be good for both of you, only to walk in on your wife and the dog walker acting out a fantasy involving a housewife and a dog walker. Carl was that kind of surprise.

Todd, Mark and Sarah were pretty certain they were all going to be fired. In fact, when Gale walked into the small conference located at the center of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida three days after Carl pummeled the East Coast, the expression on her face did nothing to dispel their fears.

"This building is butt ugly," she stated. Throwing her briefcase on table, she sat at the head of the table and scanned the three faces staring back at her. She knew who they were thanks to the typically obsessive, and somewhat creepily personal, briefing by Tripp. It was a repeated shock to her what people put on the Internet about themselves these days. No wonder no one under thirty cares about privacy, they're the ones putting it all out there. Todd Carroll had no such excuse, since he was pushing 60, bald with a well-honed beer gut and round glasses that gave him an overall impression of Harry Potter having let himself go. He also had PhDs in physics and math, so, you know, smart. Mark Fendler, thirty-two and already a ten year NOAA veteran. Married with three kids. As much as the Hurricane Center had on-air personalities, Mark was it. Not prime time, but local news handsome with short brown hair and a six foot frame that he probably hauled to the gym once a week. And, Sarah Decosta, two years out of the Army, a veteran of Afghanistan with short curly black hair and a degree in computer science started at community college and finished at Georgia Tech.

"Um," Todd ventured. As the senior forecaster, he felt compelled to speak up for the building.

"It can stand up to a Cat 5," Mark added, in a show of support.

"The carpet in here is new this year," Sarah offered, pleased the conversation seemed devoid of firings.

Gale sighed. "I'm not here to fire anyone. Just tell me what the Hell happened. The computers, the analysis . . . all wrong. I know you are all smart, dedicated and seem to like what you do. I have a thick folder here in this briefcase detailing just how smart and dedicated you all are. What I don't have is a thick folder or for that matter a cocktail napkin with scribbles on it that explains to me what happened. So, what happened?"

"We're still running diagnostics on the computers to see if a virus or glitch in the code could have affected the models, but that seems unlikely," Todd ventured.

"The data from the Hurricane Hunter flights could have been off, but it was consistent throughout Carl's track until the end. So . . ." Sarah trailed off.

"So, probably not the flight data," Gale finished.

"Right, probably not. Actually, I've triple checked the data. So, definitely not."

Gale leaned back in her chair."In other words . . "

"We're fired," offered Todd. Before Gale could get him to focus, a torrent of guilt spilled across the table.

"All those people killed."

"They never saw it coming."

"No time to prepare."

"I watched it happening and it still didn't make any sense."

"By the time we believed our eyes instead of the models, it was too late."

"Nothing we could do . . ." The verbal flood trailed off into awkward silence. Gale took a deep breath and tried refocus this group. She'd asked for them specifically knowing others at the Center followed their leads. These three were not only really good at their jobs, but they were the administrators of NOAA's most popular blog for weather geeks, An Act of Todd, which apparently around here granted a certain amount of status, though the comments in the past few days were NSFW.

"Enough with the hand-wringing! The President is suggesting I stick each of you in a boat 100 miles off the coast with a pair of binoculars to make sure this doesn't happen again, so how about some theories, people? Why did every model get it wrong?"

"Bad data or missing data is all we can think of," said Todd. Sarah and Mark nodded.

"Okay, explain that to me. How do you miss a cold front or the jet stream?" Gale asked, with only the barest hint of sarcasm--a pinch of sarcasm, if you will.

Indigent at the implication, Sarah spoke up. Being ex-military, it would have required more like a heaping dollop of sarcasm to break through. "We didn't miss anything. The geostationary satellites provide non-stop 24/7 coverage of the Atlantic Basin. There are weather buoys all over the Atlantic. Hurricane Hunters flew into the storm twice a day a day to confirm the data. Carl was in the forecast cone right up until-"

"It wasn't," Gale finished. "Let's back up a little bit for my own education. Why did you think Carl was headed out to sea?"
"The Bermuda High was set to the east, so Carl was tracking its periphery to the northwest, where it would get grabbed by the jet stream and haul ass to the northeast," Todd answered. "Seen it dozens of times." He actually found himself relaxing a bit now that he was speaking science, not ass-covering.
Gale countered, secure in her knowledge based upon an annual subscription to Scientific American and a PhD. in bullshit. "And how many times have you seen a hurricane buck the Westerlies, piss on the jet stream and kill 14 people in North Carolina?" Serious buzzkill, Gale.
"Never," Todd admitted.
"Never," Gale repeated, softly, knowingly, condescendingly.
   
"Well, once, of course," added Mark, because sometimes a scientist just can't let things go.

From the corner of the room, a well timed throat clearing from Tripp diverted the conversation.

"Really?" Gale demanded. "What could possibly be more important?"

"I'm not ranking by importance, but you are supposed to be at the President's photo op in DC this afternoon. Unless you want to be late, we have to leave," Tripp said.

With a heavy sigh, Gale translated for the team from Act of Todd. "What Tripp is trying to say is that I am obligated to attend a pointless twenty minute presidential visit to a homeless shelter in Washington, DC, so the President can appear to be doing something, when really what he should be doing is leaving me alone to meet with people like you."

"So, let's lightning round this problem. Thirty seconds each. Best guess. What happened?"

"A coding error that somehow corrupted the data and gave a bad output over a series of model runs that, um, mimicked the actual path of Carl, so we missed it, and, well when the storm moved off course, it was really on course, but we just didn't realize it," Todd offered.

"Any evidence of such an error?" Gale asked.

"Well, no, not yet," Todd acknowledged.

"You," Gale pointed to Mark. "Go."

"Human error. A misreading of the information or someone missed new data and didn't incorporate it into the forecast," he suggested.

"Is that even remotely possible?" Gale asked skeptically, almost wishing she had glasses on the end of her nose to look over the top of to fully convey her skepticism.

"No, but I didn't think a hurricane could just turn left without warning either," Mark countered.

"Tripp, if you keep acting like you're going to wet your pants over there, I'm going to ask for a tour," Gale snapped at her aide who had been fidgeting non-stop while trying not to look at his watch every ten seconds. She turned to Sarah.

"Sabotage. Someone deliberately hid or provided bad information," Sarah said.

"How?" Gale asked.

"No idea."

"Why?"

"To cause a lot of damage."

"Well, that's just great. So, my options are the computer did it, incompetence, or NOAA's own Benedict Arnold. I'll be back in two days. Have better answers then or I suggest you get used to working in a rowboat 100 miles offshore," Gale offered without even the faintest trace of sarcasm. Standing, she grabbed Tripp by the arm and threw him ahead of her out the door.







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