This is the official blog for Bryan Norcross, Hurricane Specialist at The Weather Channel.
By: Bryan Norcross , 8:58 PM GMT on February 13, 2014
Another snowstorm, another fiasco, or three. Tens of thousands of North Carolinians are stuck on highways in Charlotte and Raleigh as another state can’t manage a snowstorm. And a tempest erupts in New York City as kids are sent to school despite a forecast of 8 to 12 inches of snow.
Meanwhile in Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed get high marks for quickly learning the lessons of the debacle two weeks ago and doing things right for Winter Storm Pax. They put out a strong message well in advance of the storm, but mostly they showed leadership by making it clear that they were closing the City of Atlanta and state operations in 91 counties. Period. The tone of the announcement was forceful and direct, and essentially dared businesses to even think about forcing employees to get out on the roads.
In North Carolina, the National Weather Service had Winter Storm Warnings out for Charlotte and Raleigh a day in advance. The text was a strongly worded forecast for weather that would “severely disrupt travel”. Governor Pat McCrory was on TV a day ahead of the storm closing down government offices, and the schools followed suit. But, thousands of people went to work anyway. The governor urged people not to “put on your stupid hat”, but too late. Stupid hats were already in fashion, and lots of people got to wear them as they trudged home from their abandoned cars.
But the big stupid-hat awards go to the private employers that had people, and in some cases forced people, to come to work. Just like in Atlanta two weeks earlier, we heard a number of reports from people who were told their job was at stake if they didn’t come in.
In Atlanta, the super fiasco of two weeks ago was still ringing in everybody’s brain, so a stern tone from the governor was enough to keep careless employers in line. But in North Carolina, Governor McCrory didn’t have a recent trauma to build on, and his let’s-all-do-the-right-thing tone was not enough. And in South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley said the state can’t prevent businesses from requiring people to come to work, but she hopes they listen to the warnings about the treacherous roads. Huh?
There is something seriously wrong here. The state can require people to wear seat belts, but it can’t keep businesses from firing employees if they don’t drive in “treacherous” conditions. Since when doesn’t the state have a role in public safety?
The best I’ve ever seen at handling this problem was the Mayor of Miami-Dade County, Alex Penelas, during a marginal hurricane threat in the late 90s. A reporter asked him what people should do if they lose their job because they don’t go to work because he was telling everybody to stay off the road. He said he wanted to hear about it and the employer would deal with him directly. That did the trick.
Closing down businesses is a big, disruptive, expensive deal, and should never be done lightly. But, if it’s too dangerous for government employees to come to work, how is it not too dangerous for workers in a private business? Leadership means making tough decisions, but leaders need legal levers to pull once they make the decisions. Just because tough talk from the Georgia governor got the job done this time does not mean it will work a few years from now after a stretch of mild winters.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged the dilemma in his news conference today as he was barraged with questions about his decision to open the schools with a big snowstorm forecast. He rightly said, “many families have to go to work… they do not have a choice, and they need a safe option for their kids”. He also pointed out that school is where some kids get their only square meals. But, shockingly and depressingly, once again the administration seemed to be confused by the meaning of the words in a weather warning from the National Weather Service. (I refer you back to the Hurricane Sandy mega fiasco.)
The forecast for New York City issued at 4:03 pm Wednesday called for 8 to 12 inches of snow, which will “make travel treacherous”. The Mayor wanted a “guarantee” of a foot to call off school, but on the other hand he acknowledged that a weather forecast is never a guarantee. A bad case of circular reasoning where the only guarantee is confusion.
A forecast of 8 to 12 inches of snow means: based on the best scientific information available, the highest expected snowfall is a foot. That does NOT mean, however, that the highest POSSIBLE amount of snow is a foot. Basically it means, plan for foot but be ready for a little more. The Mayor and his people were somehow surprised by the heavy snow. He kept referring to a best-case forecast, which basically meant he was counting on the forecast being wrong and was hoping for the best.
I take the Mayor and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina at their word that they plan to open up the decision-making process so people understand why and when schools will be closed in the future. But if the Mayor and the Chancellor really think that this storm was “in a grey area” or “so unpredictable”, there are bigger problems they have to solve.
The forecast was clear and made well in advance. If the Mayor had any other idea in his mind than “up to a foot of snow is expected with a possible heavy burst in the morning” when he decided not to close the schools, then whatever malfunction caused some other less treacherous forecast to inform his decision-making needs to be found and corrected.
If the communications was not clear from the National Weather Service, fix it immediately. Winter is not over.
If he got the right message, but decided to thread the needle and hoped to squeeze the buses through and around the heavy snowfall, then that reasoning has to be re-examined as well.
Hopefully this will all work out. The kids will get home safe and lessons will be learned. But, come on, enough is enough. It’s plenty fair for the politicians to complain about the meteorologists when they get it wrong, but they also have to accept responsibility for their decisions when the forecast is right.
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