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Hurricane Irene: NOAA’s Efforts Before, During and After

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Hurricane Irene as it makes landfall in North Carolina on August 27, 2011

Hurricane season for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is much more than just naming hurricanes. Even before Irene became the first hurricane of the season, NOAA was tracking her. Things kicked into high gear when Irene formed as a hurricane and appeared headed for landfall.


On Tuesday, August 23rd, NOAA forecasters began tracking and forecasting the track of the recently declared Hurricane Irene as it entered the southeastern Bahamas. As it turned out, this track forecast was remarkably accurate. The 48-hour error for Irene was 20 percent better than the 5-year average, and during the time that watches and warning were in effect for the United States, the average 48-hour track error was half of what it would have been 15 years ago. NOAA has a video of the accuracy of the prediction. The accuracy of this forecast is due to the guidance from the forecast model, advances in satellite-based observations and supercomputers, as well as the regular surveillance missions of the NOAA Gulfstream-IV beginning on August 23rd, allowing NOAA forecasters to watch the development of the storm.

On Friday, August 26th, NOAA and the University of Oklahoma deployed  two state-of-the-art mobile radar instrumented vehicles in North Carolina to intercept Hurricane Irene. These vehicles were equipped with dual-polarization technology that provided more accurate estimates of precipitation type and amount. This was also the first hurricane for the National Science Foundation-funded Rapid X-Scan X-band dual polarized radar which is sensitive enough to detect cloud particles. By using these mobile radar instruments, NOAA was able to compare three different radars scanning for three different features of the storm, giving NOAA scientists valuable data about hurricanes and their rainfall characteristics.

On August 26th and 27th, NOAA provided people in the projected path of the Hurricane with an accurate picture of the impact the Hurricane. In order to battle what NOAA calls “hurricane amnesia,” they released warnings about the dangers of inland flooding so as to advise people not to discount the power of the storm. This is part of NOAA’s broader effort to create a ‘Weather-Ready Nation,’ a strategic plan organized by the National Weather Service to increase the public’s knowledge of different environmental and weather related phenomena.


As Hurricane Irene struck the eastern seaboard on August 27th, NOAA kept the public informed with real time data (PDF). Their Satellite and Information Service received and processed data 24 hours a day. This data was received from their geostationary (GOES) and Polar-Orbiting (POES) satellites that were focused on the U.S. East Coast. These facilities, located in Wallops, VA, Suitland, MD, and Fairbanks, AK, received and processed the data without losing a single byte of information. The first two stations were located in the path of the hurricane, the facility in Wallops, VA sustained gusts up to 73 miles per hour, but remained open and fully operational. The facility in Fairbanks, AK allowed the facilities in the path of the hurricane to receive data from the West Coast Geostationary Satellite and data from priority polar downlink transmissions.

Also during the hurricane NOAA provided real-time data from their Chesapeake Bay buoys. This information allowed the public to track the wind speeds and the wave effects as the hurricane moved through the Delmarva Peninsula.


After Hurricane Irene passed over the East coast, all NOAA line offices were operating at full capacity. Immediately following the hurricane, the Office of Coast Survey provided emergency hydrographic services for affected port areas. These emergency response units checked for underwater objects that would be dangerous to ships. In addition, they updated nautical charts and provided mapping support that allowed for faster reopening of ports and waterways.

On August 28th, the National Geodetic Survey began flying photo survey missions (PDF) in the NOAA King Air turboprop to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Irene. The photos that were taken by these missions allowed for the development of recovery strategies, the facilitation of search and rescue efforts, the identification of hazards to navigation and HAZMAT spills, and to determine damage by comparing the post-hurricane photos with pre-hurricane photos.

The post-Irene work continues as NOAA line offices provide valuable services to the America public through a number of valuable long-term projects. The National Status and Trends Program, a subsidiary of the National Centers for Costal Ocean Science, has been working to develop strategies to examine the environmental contaminates in local waters after hurricanes. They are specifically examining the safety of local fish and shellfish in order to ensure seafood safety. The Coastal Services Center, by providing satellite and aerial images of the regions affected by the hurricane in order to understand the ecological impacts, assess debris, and understand wetlands loss that Irene caused. Additionally, the Coastal Services Center and the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management have been providing valuable input in planning for long-term recovery, such as coastal project plans, recovery plans, and helping local communities plan for their own long term recovery in areas devastated by Irene. 

Fun Fact: During the week that preceded Hurricane Irene, NOAA’s National Hurricane Center Facebook page received 6.4 million views, 8,000 post comments and “Likes”, and 68,000 new subscribers as concerned citizens flocked to the page to stay updated on the latest news on Hurricane Irene.

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