Lessons from El Faro: Forecasts Can't Guarantee Safety

Hurricane Joaquin (USCG / NOAA)

Published Jul 7, 2017 3:17 PM by Jordanna Sheermohamed

The sinking of the ro/con El Faro in Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 was a tragic testament to the force of nature. In late June, the National Transportation Safety Board released a safety report addressing weather factors in the days leading up to the accident, and it advised several changes to hurricane forecasting methods and the protocols used to relay weather information to vessels at sea.

While the suggestions would help to propagate newer information more efficiently, there remains an unstated but inevitable fact: In a world where man battles nature, nature will often win. If we push the boundaries, battling the extremes in pursuit of our goals, we increase that risk. As a meteorologist who provides weather forecasts and support images for the maritime industry, I feel that many of our clients turn to us because they know that we are looking out for their best interests. While forecasting from the safety of my desk, I can only relay the information to the people in charge. I am not at the helm of the vessel nor can I force anyone to change the course. But I would certainly never recommend that a vessel should push the boundaries of safety by accepting any forecast – no matter how good – as the absolute truth.

Weather can change quickly, and this is especially true for hurricanes. A perfect example would be to analyze the change in intensity of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. This system rapidly intensified from a Category 3 to a category 5 within 9 hours, with winds jumping from 100 to 140 mph during that time frame. The trajectory of the system wobbled westward through the Caribbean Sea, made landfall in Haiti and the Bahamas, then bumped northwards along the Atlantic coast of Florida and made its final landfall in South Carolina. 

I often joke with colleagues and lecture attendees that we are not psychics, but scientists. Our forecasts are a recipe of best-educated decisions with the information we have at hand, operational experience, years of physics and calculus, and a dash of luck. They are not perfect, but we know that lives and property are at stake, and we care about being right. My overall feeling after reading this NTSB report was that although the recommendations were insightful and sound, maybe it’s time to put the responsibility back on the people in charge. By this, I don’t mean just the vessel's master, but the owners and operators of the ship itself. More emphasis should be put on safety and on sound decisions, and less on profits and on-time arrival. It’s time for us to resume the mentality that it’s always best to keep a respectful distance from nature.

Jordanna Sheermohamed is president and lead forecaster of Weather Forecast Solutions. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.