Exactly one year ago (January 26, 2011), a powerful winter storm walloped the region at just the wrong time, leading to one of Washington, D.C.’s worst ever evening commutes. A thunderstorm of sleet and then snow overwhelmed the region between 4 and 10 p.m., paralyzing traffic everywhere. Chances are good either you or someone you know waited until it was too late to leave your/their job, and got stuck on area roads for hours.
As we discussed last year after the storm, the forecasts were generally (though not universally) good, but too few Washingtonians got the message to get off the roads and be where they needed to be before 4 p.m., when all mayhem broke lose. What I wrote yesterday about one of the common threads at the AMS annual meeting merits repeating: “2011 ... proved getting the forecast right is not enough. The right forecast has to reach the right people and the right actions have to be taken, starting well before a storm strikes.”
So if a storm were bearing down on the region today, did we learn enough from it to avoid a Commutageddon, the sequel?
I think we’re on the right track.
Let’s start by crediting the Federal government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM). It instituted changes that err on the side of caution in keeping commuters off the road during potentially hazardous conditions. The Federal Eye blog noted personnel director John Berry conceded its new policies “may create an embarrassment” by shutting down the government when dangerous weather fails to materialize.
“We will be accused of overreacting. But the safety of federal employees comes first,” he said.
Right on cue, such a scenario occurred this past Monday when OPM made the controversial call to close Federal offices until 11 a.m. due to forecasts for freezing rain which, in reality, caused few problems on area roads.
OPM will need to work on weighing the information provided in weather forecasts and striking the right balance between being overly cautious and jeopardizing the safety of its workers in making decisions about government operations. But for now, a cautious approach makes sense.
Our local National Weather Service office based in Sterling, Va. has also made some changes in its operations to more effectively communicate its forecasts and reach more people.
Chris Strong, the office’s warning coordination meteorologist, said during the storm last year, some of the critical information it released did not get widely disseminated. It issued a Special Weather Statement about “dangerous conditions during rush hour” which had limited distribution. Now, it’s placing emphasis to ensure “the important messages go out through all of our products” Strong said.
The NWS has also made strides to better connect with media partners Strong said, by providing access to a text alerting system and on-line chat program which gives them direct access to forecasters.
As far as better reaching the public, Strong said his office has hired three emergency response meteorologists who will work “to develop even further new ways to reach people with important weather information.” He also noted the office has launched a Facebook page as another venue for releasing information and engaging with the public.
Based on all of these changes, I suspect if the exact same circumstances occurred today, the city would handle them better. On the other hand, it’s true that for some people, no matter how much good information they have, they won’t take action. And private sector leaders must also take actions to protect the safety of their workers and communities during hazardous weather.
It’s probably the case that some amount of disruption is inevitable anytime we have significant snow as congested as our city has become. But as long as all parts of society learn from experience and institute changes, we’ll make progress. I believe we have.
And as I wrote yesterday, the meteorology community’s strong commitment to working with social scientists, emergency managers, community organizations, and corporate and government leaders in building community resiliency to extreme weather will only help matters. So we must keep working.