This is the official blog for Bryan Norcross, Hurricane Specialist at The Weather Channel.
By: Bryan Norcross , 9:06 PM GMT on January 29, 2014
Thousands of people, including school children, are still not home in Metro Atlanta after leaving the work yesterday afternoon. They slept in schools, in their cars, and up and down the aisles of Home Depots and 24-hour drug stores. Another horrendous outcome of the dysfunctional system that that we use in this country to connect the weather forecasters, the emergency decision-makers, and the public.
My meteorologist friends are saying things like, “Atlanta was well warned”. But if that were true, the only conclusion has to be that a couple million stupid people all decided to get on the road at the same time and create an apocalyptic nightmare. And in that couple of million, by the way, would be the governor, the mayor, the department of transportation, the school board and everybody else who didn’t get the message that a life-threatening event was in the making.
The formula for disaster in Atlanta is pretty simple.
WARM GROUND + VERY COLD AIR + SNOW + WORKDAY = CHAOS
Here’s the sequence: the initial snow melts due to the warm ground (55 to 60 in Atlanta on Sunday); the cold air freezes that water into a coating of ice (temperatures dropped through the 20s all afternoon); the road gets slipperier as the snow gets compressed onto the ice and/or melts due to the traffic (another 2” of snow fell after the initial melt); people see the snow, freak out (with good reason), and all leave work at once.
Every hilly road, which is most of metropolitan Atlanta, would have had to be treated with salt before the storm so that first layer of ice didn’t form to keep this from happening. It wasn’t possible this time, and it never will be. Everybody knew it wasn’t possible, but nobody had the systemic wherewithal to assemble the facts, understand the threat, and close the city for the day.
The meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Atlanta analyzed the weather pattern and the computer models quite well. Their discussions were clear enough in the days before the storm. It was a challenging forecast because Atlanta was on the northern edge of the snow, but the discussion of snow and a cold wind were always there. The day before the event, they had a Winter Storm Watch in effect for the city. They lowered it that night to a Winter Weather Advisory, a critical mistake in hindsight, and then put up the Winter Storm Warning in the middle of the night before the snow. So, it wasn’t perfect, but there was plenty of clear discussion of the possibility of a few inches of snow along with bitter cold temperatures.
If the decision-makers understood the formula above, this information should have been sufficient to trigger a proper response.
But, state governments and big cities and counties don’t get their weather analyses from these public bulletins and advisories. Instead, they get direct briefings from National Weather Service meteorologists. To hear the public officials tell it, they were caught off-guard by the storm, so somewhere in that communications system there was a serious disconnect. The decision-makers either didn’t get the message, or more likely, didn’t have appropriate action plans, which the threatening forecast would have triggered.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal threw the National Weather Service under the bus - going so far as to say that local TV weather people made more accurate forecasts – but his statement shows a complete misunderstanding of the role of the NWS forecasters and the role of emergency decision-makers, including himself. The meteorologists make the weather forecasts, the emergency managers and decision-makers at cities, counties, states, and school boards are supposed to understand the impact of the weather, direct the government response, and communicate recommended actions to the public. Shockingly, the governor and the Atlanta mayor didn’t see that as their responsibility.
This is distressingly similar to Hurricane Sandy, of course. A major city, along with the state in this case, in spite of direct communications with the National Weather Service, is unable to put the pieces together to understand the RISK to their citizens. Risk implies uncertainty, and understanding it is at the heart of decision-making. Let’s say the chance of the storm producing 3 inches of snow was 30% on Monday, which sounds about right. The Georgia decision-makers didn’t understand that a 30% risk of a cataclysm requires major affirmative action. You can’t wait for a guarantee.
How about a 20% chance of tens of thousand of people being stranded on the highway in freezing temperatures? Is that enough for a governor or mayor to make the decision to tell people to stay home? It’s not easy, but it’s not rocket science. Mostly, you have to understand the ingredients that have to come together to create a disaster in your city. (See formula above.)
Mayor Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans understood this process and closed down the city in advance of the ice that was forecast there. That wasn’t a guarantee either, but the RISK was sufficient that he made the hard and right decision.
Somewhere and somehow somebody has got to take the lead on closing the threat-understanding gap between forecasters, decision-makers, and the public. It’s not simple because of the division of responsibilities between various federal, state, and local agencies in a disaster. But, we’ve seen too many instances where good-enough weather forecasts have lead to bad decisions and poor public communications. The issue is partly science, which we should be able to solve with an organized effort by the National Weather Service, FEMA, and others.
But there’s another big problem, which the Georgia governor articulated very well in his news conference. He was more afraid to be wrong in closing down the city, than he was of people being stranded in their cars. Until we can develop a system that keeps politics out of it and lets science and good judgment drive the decision-making bus, this kind of thing is going to keep happening.
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