Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:40 PM GMT on January 29, 2014
A dangerous winter storm swept through the Deep South on Tuesday, dumping 1 - 4" of snow and 1/4" - 1/2" of ice on a region unused to dealing with severe winter weather. Travel chaos resulted in many cities, and at least nine people died in storm-related accidents. Officially, 2.6" of snow fell at the Atlanta Airport from Winter Storm Leon, and snow amounts across the city ranged from 1.5" - 3.5". But with temperatures in the low 20s, and only 40 snow plows and 30 sand trucks to handle the snow, Atlanta streets and highways quickly turned into parking lots during the afternoon snow, as schools, businesses, and government offices all closed nearly simultaneously, sending a huge number of vehicles onto the roads. Atlanta experienced its worst traffic day of all-time, and thousands of motorists were forced to abandon their vehicles, with many spending the night sheltering in stores, stalled cars, or strangers' homes. A Facebook group dubbed SnowedOutAtlanta, meant to connect stranded motorists with people willing to put them up for the night, had thousands of members by Tuesday night. Thousands of children never made it home, and were forced to spend the night at their schools or at bus shelters. There were 1200 confirmed traffic accidents in Atlanta, with at least 130 injuries, according to media reports. It was Atlanta's worst driving day since the infamous Snow Jam of 1982, when 6" of snow also created traffic chaos, stranding thousands of motorists.
The Weather Channel's Paul Goodloe had this to say about his evening commute home Tuesday night:
"On my drive home tonight, I gave a ride to a school bus driver who was walking on a road that was littered with abandoned cars. He said his bus got stuck with kids on it not far from the school. They walked back. He told me there are several hundred kids spending the night at East Cobb Middle and several hundred high school kids spending the night at Wheeler High. He said several buses were involved in traffic accidents, usually with other people running into the buses. One bus was hit on all 4 sides."
Figure 1. Traffic gridlock in Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, January 28, 2014. Image credit: @beercontrol/twitter.
Figure 2. Snow began falling in Atlanta at 11:15 am on Tuesday, and the progression of traffic gridlock in the city was remarkably swift as everyone left school and work simultaneously and flooded area roads. Image credit: Kevin O. via Twitter.
Dangerous travel continues on Wednesday
After a morning low of 11° in Atlanta on Wednesday morning, the temperature will struggle to reach the freezing mark, resulting in little improvement in road conditions during the day. A Winter Storm Warning continues for Atlanta throughout this afternoon, even though skies are sunny, and no precipitation is expected. I don't think I've even seen a Winter Storm Warning issued with a forecast of clear skies, but if it helps keep people off the roads, it's a great idea:
"… Winter Storm Warning now in effect until 1 PM EST this afternoon...
* locations... northern Georgia.
* Hazard types... continued hazardous driving conditions due to snow and ice covered roads.
* Accumulations... no additional accumulations.
* Timing... now through this afternoon.
* Impacts... snow and ice covered roadways will make travel extremely treacherous. Numerous vehicle accidents have already been reported across northern Georgia. Stay off the roadways if possible."
At 1 pm, this Winter Storm Warning was replaced with a "Civil Emergency Message", which is the way situations like this should be handled in the future.
Atlanta was warned well in advance of the winter storm, but local officials failed to plan properly for the storm. Advances in weather forecasting won't help much if people don't use the information to make the right decisions. J. Marshall Shepherd, a University of Georgia professor who serves as the current head of the American Meteorological Society, had these points to make in his blog post, "An Open Thank You to Meteorologists in Atlanta":
1. The public needs to clearly understand what Watch, Warning, and Advisory mean rather than what they “think” they mean. Also, they must understand that a Watch for a winter event has nuanced differences than tornado, hurricane, or other warnings.
2. Should we develop “warnings” that are more clearly meaningful to the public like a number or index? Research and scholarly discussion will be required, but increasingly, social science research is revealing that how people consume information is as critical as giving them the right information.
3. The public must watch the evolving forecast not a snapshot they saw 2 or so days ago. The forecasts change.
4. A friend (not a meteorologist but an intelligent, attentive citizen) noted that a few media outlets, at times, showed 4 different model scenarios at times. She noted that this is confusing to the public. I agree. We, as meteorologists, use an array of model tools, diagnostics, or data. Does the public need to see “the sausage making” or the scenarios we weigh out? When these scenarios are shown on TV or a website, we, as professionals, know how to consume them, but the public may be confused or misinterpret the message.
5. Forecasting capacity in the 1-5 day window is quite good, but as we get to local-to-regional scales and 1-24 hour time frame (“the mesoscale”), the processes are not as well-represented in the models. We know where improvements are needed. Budget cuts, travel restrictions, and other policy decisions hinder research and development that lead to improvements for citizens.
6. We still have challenges in how weather information is consumed, interpreted, or viewed by policymakers and decision-makers. This is ultimately the root of the Atlanta mess from Tuesday, in my view. I don't believe "anyone" is necessarily to blame. The situation simply points out that we still have challenges in communicating across the science-decisionmaker-public "gap."
Figure 3. People work to clear stranded vehicles on County Road 25, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014 in Wilsonville, Ala. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
Freezing rain and snow end across the South
Though freezing rain and snow from Winter Storm Leon have ended across most of the South, temperatures well below freezing will continue to keep traffic paralyzed over a swath of the country from East Texas to Eastern North Carolina. Atlanta wasn't the only city with extreme traffic problems. Birmingham, Alabama looked much like Atlanta, with thousands of drivers stuck and hundreds of children unable to get home; Tuscaloosa, Alabama declared a state of emergency and ordered all non-emergency vehicles off the road; 124 miles of I-10 in the Florida Panhandle were closed on Wednesday morning due to ice. Fortunately, the freezing rain was not great enough to cause serious power outages, with ice accumulations generally under 1/4". Here are a few of the power outage numbers as of midnight on Tuesday:
NC: Two utilities reporting 2,528 without power
SC: Two utilities report 997 without electricity
GA: One utility reports 1,260 without power
TX: Three utilities report 914 without power
LA: Two utilities, 417 without power
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