El Faro Received Out-of-Date Storm Track Data

Hurricane Joaquin (image courtesy NOAA)

By The Maritime Executive 05-18-2016 08:58:47

On Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation continued its hearings into the loss of the El Faro with testimony from Jerry Hale and Rich Brown of Applied Weather Technology (AWT), the firm which provided the vessel’s subscription weather products, and from Jim Wagstaff, vice president of operations for TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico.

Hale and Brown testified that there was a time delay between the issuance of an official National Weather Service forecast and the publication of AWT's latest weather model updates for subscribers. In the AWT system's main presentation, “the age of that tropical storm track would be four to five hours" after the government's forecast, said Rich Brown, vice president of operations for AWT. In an example from testimony, NWS-published forecast data from 0900 GMT would be used as the basis for AWT's 1500 GMT update.

The National Weather Service issues advisories three hours after data collection, indicating that the AWT product portrayed a forecast based on data from seven or more hours prior. In followup questioning, William Bennett, the representative for the widow of the El Faro's captain, Michael Davidson, asked for clarification on the time delay. "In the main model, you're putting out information that is nine hours old?" he asked. Brown affirmed that this was correct.

Brown noted that subscribers could also download NWS products directly from AWT by email request, and that these could be had shortly after their NWS publication time.

In addition, Hale and Brown told the panel that a forecast package sent to the El Faro the morning she sailed contained storm track data that had not been updated to the latest available information from the National Weather Service.

"The underlying model data, the winds, the waves were all up to date. The storm track . . . data would have been out of date by . . . ten hours," said Brown. He believes "it was processed late, so it didn't get into the next package,” but said that AWT had not been able to determine the exact reason.

The discrepancy was limited to this forecast update alone, and Brown emphasized that it did not affect the wind and wave predictions for the package, which were based on the most recent National Weather Service data available.