Pac Regional Director of National Weather Service flies in for Senate hearing on Gita

Says he has full confidence in the competence of the entire local WSO staff
ausage@samoanews.com

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Senators wanting to hear directly from the Weather Service Office (WSO) about details regarding Tropical Storm Gita, due to many in the community believing it failed to warn them of the severity of the incoming storm, as well as during the storm, held a hearing on the issue last Thursday. 

Appearing before the Senate Homeland Security committee, chaired by Sen. Magalei Logovii were the following weather officials: Pacific Regional Director of the National Weather Service, Raymond Tanabe along with Meteorologist in Charge (MIC) Elinor Lutu-McMoore of the Weather Service Office- Pago Pago, and meteorologist/forecaster Carol Ma’afala-Baqui.

Tanabe, who traveled from Honolulu, Hawai’i, for the hearing, departed the territory that same night.

During the hearing, each Senator was provided a folder that contained weather information regarding Gita and the timeline of events.

Tanabe expressed his full confidence in the competence of the entire staff, (all of whom are native Samoans,) and gave assurances that WSO Pago Pago has the complete support of not only the NWS Pacific Regional Office in Hawai’i but also the NOAA NWS headquarters in Washington, DC.

Senate Vice President, Sen. Nuanuaolefeagaiga S. Nua did not mince words and said he was confused with the announcements that American Samoa’s Weather Office submitted through local media in the days prior to Gita's arrival, “’Aua le popole.” (Don’t worry.) 

But on the morning of Feb. 9, when the tropical storm was expected, he heard independent Samoa’s 2-AP radio station announce, “Tapena mo le afā,” (prepare for the hurricane.) 

He said it appeared Upolu got the tropical storm warning out to the public correctly, while American Samoa’s weather service did not.

Responding, Lutu-McMoore referred to the timeline of events, which started with a weather advisory, and them the tropical storm watch and warning bulletins issued by the WSO on Monday, Feb. 5th to the following Monday, Feb. 12th.

She noted that WSO did issue a Tropical Storm Watch for American Samoa at 2:57 p.m. Thursday afternoon — the day before the storm hit the territory; and, at the insistence of Baqui, the RSMC Nadi office in Fiji finally named the Tropical Storm, “Gita” at 6:39 p.m. (that Thursday) and the WSO upgraded its Tropical Storm Warning shortly thereafter.

Lutu-McMoore pointed to a white paper written in 2014, which was also included in the handout. The paper noted the historical background of the Two Samoa Agreement in 2003 to have uniform tropical cyclone terminology. An MOU was signed in 2009, under the leadership of Mase Akapo Akapo. However, by 2012, after Tropical Cyclone Evan devastated Samoa, the island reverted back and changed their tropical cyclone terminology to be in line with Australia and Fiji. 

Discussions between the two Samoas would continue, highlighting concerns about this difference (this was also included in the white paper); but every year since 2012, they have “Agreed to Disagree.”

Senator Tuiagamoa Tavai asked Tanabe if he thought the WSO in American Samoa is doing a good job, to which Tanabe immediately responded, “I am very proud of the staff that we have, they are very talented, very educated; we do provide trainings for them as with every weather service office all over the country."

He added, "There is also specialized training on issues particular to this office. As a matter of fact, WSO Pago Pago is the only Weather Service Office of the United States in the Southern Hemisphere. Training is also provided by Australia, NZ, and Fiji which is specific to weather in the Pacific.”

Tanabe added that the facilities and equipment in the territory’s Weather Office may not yet be up to par but these are issues he is working on. A primary example is the lack of a Weather Radar, which would provide a lot more opportunities to detect severe weather.

He explained that presently there is a bill in the US Senate to conduct an assessment of the entire US on where the gaps are on radar. Hopefully, it will pass this year and help secure funding for a radar, he said. 

In regards to an upgrade in the territory’s facility, Tanabe said they know WSO Pago needs a back-up generator. (During Gita, ASPA power went out island wide, at which time WSO Pago’s back-up generator was found to be down.)  

Tuiagamoa referred to the Channel 4 weather stream that appears on TV, monitored by Bluesky Communications. He said he's not happy that the stream is on all day without interruptions on severe weather conditions, especially when there are strong winds and changes in weather. He strongly advised WSO officials present at the Senate hearing to review this practice and make changes to fully inform the public on the latest weather conditions.

Senator Faiivae Iuli Alex Godinet pursued questions with Tanabe, regarding the Weather Radar and noted that such discussions date back to the time of the late Senator Liufau Tanielu Sonoma, who was also a senior forecaster at WSO Pago Pago.

Faiivae urged Tanabe to make contact with Congresswoman Aumua Amata for help in facilitating the request for American Samoa’s Weather Service Office. Faiivae believes American Samoa’s forecasters should have the capability to move forward with important weather information, and not be hindered by the uncertainty of Fiji’s weather professionals or any other forecasters outside of American Samoa.

He strongly urged Tanabe to make the improvements necessary to help WSO Pago Pago, because he is very embarrassed as a US passport holder to have to rely on (independent state) Samoa’s announcements of impending bad weather.

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