Most Read: Local

Posted at 10:23 AM ET, 01/31/2011

Commutageddon: could we all have done more?

As we look back at last Wednesday's catastrophic commute, the question arises- could better forecast information and communication helped avert the horrific "commutageddon" (the storm name winner) scenario that unfolded?

As readers of this blog know, we started sounding the alarm Monday night ("Pretty much all guidance from tonight suggests a pretty good dump of snow across the area late Wednesday into Wednesday night"), warned about trees limb damage and power outage threat Tuesday ("By evening, the storm has the potential to become significant and hazardous with wet snow that could lead to trees limbs coming down and power outages if the storm lives up to its potential.") and honked pretty loudly Wednesday morning in two consecutive posts on the threat.

Mid-morning I wrote:

If you need to get out and about to run any errands, the next several hours - through around 2 p.m. - would be a good time. ... a major, potentially remarkable thump of snow is coming later today. . . . Not to sound alarming, but all be aware that the snowfall rates around this evening's commute may be extreme and make travel very hazardous and potentially crippling. Thundersnow is possible with rates in excess of 1 to 2 inches per hour

Late morning I re-iterated:

I ... would not advise being on the roads after 4 p.m. You may risk getting caught in horrendous backups and/or getting stuck somewhere.

But obviously the word didn't get out to everyone. Some have questioned if the National Weather Service - whose mission is to protect life and property - adequately did its job. Others have pointed fingers at confusing and inconsistent forecasts in the broadcast media. I'll offer a few comments on how I think they did...

I think the NWS handled the storm pretty well overall. Yes, you could argue they erred by delaying winter storm warnings until Wednesday morning when you could've made a case for them late Tuesday night. I also thought their decision to initially only issue a winter weather advisory for the District (and close-in suburbs) Wednesday morning was suspect (before they upgraded it to a warning). But, to their credit, they issued the critical special weather statement Wednesday morning warning about "dangerous" travel during rush hour and their information informed OPM's decision to dismiss Federal workers two hours early.

The effectiveness of broadcast media's communication during the storm was uneven based on accounts I read. Because I was covering the storm, I wasn't able to catch a lot of the TV coverage so I can't address specific forecasts made by specific forecasters.

But, to make a comment, I did hear reports of TV forecasters "downplaying" the event on Tuesday. I think forecasters need to be judicious in when they choose to downplay and when they choose to hype. Given the energy and precipitation rates associated with the storm (that was clearly evident in every single computer model), it was NOT one to downplay - especially given the rush hour timing.

I think some forecasters downplayed the event because they thought temperatures would be too warm and probably also because they were gun shy after previous snow threats fizzled. But it's important for forecasters to recognize when a storm has potential to become severely disruptive and be clear in communicating the range of possibilities -even if they're skeptical the worst will materialize.

So the television media probably could've done a better job at communicating the risk and perhaps the National Weather Service could have honked the horn a little earlier (and that may have influenced the TV forecasters to sound the alarm louder).

But despite these lapses, the information about the urgency of the situation was out there by late morning Wednesday and many did either didn't get the memo or didn't act upon it. So what more could've been done to get people off the roads sooner?

It's a difficult question, mainly because different people have different access to information, and varying trust in/understanding of weather forecasts. And some will refuse to act in spite of dire warnings.

But I think the lesson learned is that we all need to do a better job disseminating and communicating information during weather emergencies or emergencies of any type. We have to blast the message out on across all media and all platforms. And it's no longer just the responsibility of forecasters, the media, the government and emergency managers, but all of us via social media and our own personal networks.

There are more opportunities to spread the word than ever, and we all share the responsibility of communicating during hazardous situations. Capital Weather Gang readers and forecasters are weather savvy, so we bear a heightened responsibility in communicating with people we know to raise their awareness and understanding.

From all accounts, I think many Capital Weather readers did an outstanding job spreading the word about Wednesday's situation. We had hundreds of readers recommending our content on Facebook and retweeting our Twitter messages. Not to mention, many people commented that they passed on information to family, friends, and officemates.

But it wasn't enough. So we all need to get better at it in every corner of our society. The good news is that technology is offering us all more and more opportunities to do so.

By  |  10:23 AM ET, 01/31/2011

Categories:  Latest, Latest, Latest

Read what others are saying

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company