NOAA 2004-R299-48
Contact: Marcie Katcher

NOAA News Releases 2004
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The U.S. Department of Commerce has awarded its prestigious Gold Medal to the staff members of NOAA’s National Weather Service Forecast Offices in Sterling, Va., Wakefield, Va., and Newport, N.C. The award was presented in recognition of their customer service, while enduring personal hardships, before, during and after Hurricane Isabel. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Alerts regarding the threat of Hurricane Isabel to the public were sent by the NWS eight days before the storm made landfall on Sept. 18, 2003. Isabel was directly responsible for 17 deaths and an estimated economic loss of $5 billion.

“The personnel at the three award winning forecast offices showed unselfish devotion to duty working 12 or more hours at a time. Some staff were trapped in the office for more than 24 hours, and continued to provide life-saving information in spite of the fact their own families were in harms way,” said Mickey Brown, deputy director of the NWS Eastern Region. “We are extremely proud of their unwavering response and commitment to saving life and property.”

In the two days leading up to the onset of Hurricane Isabel, more than 500 briefings were provided to the media, critical emergency services’ partners, and other government agencies by the WFO in Sterling, Va. Strong partnerships with the media and emergency service officials along with accurate and timely forecast products lead to minimal loss of life during Isabel, despite extreme coastal storm surge and widespread inland flash flooding. Weather briefings from the Sterling WFO on the anticipated flooding lead Gary Critzer, emergency manager for the city of Waynesboro to say, “Boy, you really hit the nail on the head! Your telephone briefing was the saving grace.”

Some of Isabel’s most severe impacts occurred in the area served by the WFO in Wakefield, Va. Between 80 and 90 percent of their area (approximately 1 million customers) was without electricity for up to three weeks. Unprecedented storm surge flooding along the James, York, Rappahannock and Potomac rivers caused major structural damage in several communities. Ten NWS employees endured the storm from the office as their families remained at home. Two employees were forced to stay overnight in a Red Cross shelter when blocked roads prevented them from reaching the office or returning home. Throughout the storm, the Wakefield WFO maintained operations, providing timely warnings and forecasts. Warnings for hurricane conditions and inland high winds were issued 24 hours or more before impact.

For the WFO in Newport/Morehead City, Hurricane Isabel made landfall near Drum Inlet, N.C., as a category two hurricane with 100 mph sustained winds. Isabel moved rapidly to the northeast with devastating effects on residents of eastern North Carolina. A storm surge of six to ten feet along stretches of the Outer Banks, areas adjacent to Pamlico Sound, lower reaches of the Neuse and Pamlico rivers resulted in the damage or total loss of thousands of homes and businesses. The combination of the hurricane making landfall near the time of high tide, and the large waves generated by the storm, resulted in major ocean overwash and beach erosion. Strong winds snapped many trees and power lines with significant damage to structures. It is estimated that nearly a half billion dollars in damage was related to the storm in North Carolina.

Prompt, accurate warnings and statements from the WFO in Newport/Morehead City allowed residents to prepare for the worst with no injuries or loss of life directly related to the storm. Skip Waters, chief meteorologist for WCTI-TV in New Bern, N.C., had high praises for the forecast office and was quoted saying, "In my 27 years of television, I don't know if there's a better office anywhere. They do a great job."

The high level of service provided by the WFOs not only was widely praised by the media, emergency management community and the public, but Congress as well. It was the subject of a letter signed by 11 members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ House Science Committee that stated, “…many of your employees in the hardest hit areas literally lived in their weather offices, working long, stressful hours to issue the warnings that saved lives…” and “We greatly appreciate the outstanding service your agency provides to this nation and the lives you save every day.”

The award was presented at a special ceremony in Washington, D.C. Presented annually for distinguished performance in support of the department’s critical objectives, the Gold Medal is the Commerce Department’s highest honorary award.

NOAA's National Weather Service is the primary source of weather data, forecasts and warnings for the United States and its territories. NOAA's National Weather Service operates the most advanced weather and flood warning and forecast system in the world, helping to protect lives and property and enhance the national economy.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.

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