Are meteorologists to blame for snow disasters in Atlanta and Birmingham?

Update, 4:15 p.m.: The Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross just posted some sage comments on this issue in a post on Facebook. Key excerpt:

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 new 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.

Update, 4:00 p.m.: Mike Smith, senior vice president for AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, says AccuWeather sounded the alarm at 3 p.m. Monday, including the following statement in a notice to clients:

The ice and snow amounts indicated here [on a map, with Atlanta along the northern edge of the hazardous zone], spread over a large area generally unaccustomed to seeing winter storms of this magnitude, will bring transport and logistical operations to a virtual standstill. Delays and cancellations will cripple air, ground, and rail travel for days.

Update, 2:15 p.m.: Al Roker puts the blame on officials, not meteorologists: Atlanta mayor and Georgia governor “took a gamble”, Roker says. Watch video below.

(Note: this is just Roker’s point of view; my views/analysis below are unchanged)


Traffic inches along the connector of Interstate’s 75 and 85 as snow blankets Metro Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 28, 2014 as seen from the Pryor Street overpass.  (AP Photo/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Gray)

Original commentary, published at 12:30 p.m.: Birmingham and Atlanta were absolutely paralyzed by snow that arrived yesterday afternoon. In Atlanta, gridlock on roadways continues.

By now, everyone’s seen the pictures and heard the nightmarish stories: commuters stuck in their cars over 8 hours – some abandoning them, and children stranded overnight at schools.

From the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

“It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible situation for people who are stuck out there,” said [Karlene] Barron [a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Transportation), her eyes filling with tears. “I sit there and think about the mothers whose children are stuck in school buses… But people need to understand our folks are working as tedious as they can. This is a really hard situation for everybody.”

Related: The South’s disastrous response to the winter storm, in pictures | Atlanta storm traps Ohio State coach Tom Herman in car for 19 hours

 

The question is: are meteorologists responsible for the Birmingham and Atlanta debacles? The short answer is yes and no, in my view.

Birmingham

Famed broadcast meteorologist James Spann, has conceded his forecast for Birmingham - which predicted less snow than occurred - was "botched" and is accepting responsibility:

Days like yesterday, unfortunately, are part of my job. There have been bad forecasts in the past, and there will be bad ones in the future. Football coaches don’t win every game, and we don’t get every forecast right. But, when you lose, you do deep study into what went wrong, and work to be sure it doesn’t happen again.

Major kudos to Spann for his sincerity and commitment to accountability. No meteorologist wants to make a bad forecast given the consequences. Admitting mistakes is the first step in improving as a forecaster and builds trust. Weather consumers should appreciate forecasts aren't perfect - but have a right to a explanation when they don't work out.

Atlanta

Some in the meteorological community are rallying around Atlanta forecasters - providing strong evidence that the forecasts in Atlanta were good but officials failed to take proper action. A winter storm warning was in fact issued at 3:38 a.m. the morning before the snow began in Atlanta.

But here's a critical point: as meteorologists, our jobs do not stop at simply issuing a forecast. We have to do everything we can to make sure the correct decisions are made from those forecasts. I've said it before, but it bears repeating, a perfect forecast followed by bad decisions equates to a failed forecast. It's like multiplying a million by zero.

 

Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and Georgia resident, took a diplomatic stance in trying to make sense of what happened. He praised the forecast, but suggested there is work to be done in improving responses:

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 National Weather Service is trying to confront the challenge of reaching decision-makers with sound forecast information through its Weather Ready Nation program. All forecast offices brief emergency managers and officials about forecast conditions. Some have special emergency response meteorologists (ERMs) who liaison with decision-makers to ensure critical information about hazardous weather is conveyed and understood. The National Weather Service is also involved in social science research to better understand how people use forecast information and reach decisions.

 

Atlanta does not have ERMs (although it does have an aviation liaison who works with Hartsfield International airport on weather issues), but conveyed information about the forecast in several briefings to emergency managers, according to Atlanta NWS forecaster Nikole Listemaa, who I spoke with this morning.

Listemaa said her office directly briefed emergency management officials on several occasions:

* It sent an email briefing to emergency managers on Sunday at 3:13 p.m. when it issued a winter storm watch for the region, nearly 48 hours before precipitation moved in
* It conducted a webinar briefing Monday at 1 p.m. with emergency manager partners. There were some schools on the webinar briefing, Listemaa said.
* It provided an email update Monday evening
* Another briefing was released Tuesday morning

 

According to Listemaa, officials from the Georgia Department of Transportation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FEMA, and the Federal Executive Board and others participated in and/or received briefings.

The question then becomes, how forceful was the National Weather Service in these briefings? Did it adequately communicate how quickly conditions on roads could deteriorate?

I obtained two of the briefings the Atlanta office sent to emergency managers, the first from 1 p.m. Monday and the second from 9 a.m. Tuesday. The summary slides from both briefings are below:


NWS Atlanta briefing from 1 p.m. January 27

NWS Atlanta briefing from 9 a.m. January 28

Clearly, the first briefing from Monday afternoon is pretty vague with respect to its message.  Significant travel problems are expected in “some” of north Georgia and “parts” of the Atlanta area.  In fairness, the vagueness is defensible as it was still uncertain how far accumulating snow would reach at that time. Yet it was this vagueness which probably resulted in schools opening and people going to work – notwithstanding the winter storm “watch” which was in effect at the time. (Note: Marshall Shepherd, in his piece, makes a good point that many people don’t appreciate/understand the significance of such watches).

The second briefing from Tuesday morning (above) is much more forceful and contains actionable information. “Leave work early if you can!”  But by then, people were already at work and school – ready to freak out at the sight of the first flakes and jam the roads.  As the snow began in Atlanta midday, the lead time for these dire messages simply wasn’t enough.

Ultimately, this seems like a situation where forecasters didn’t have enough confidence in a serious weather situation long enough in advance to sound a loud alarm and avoid a horrible outcome. Yes, a warning was issued very early in the morning the day the storm hit but – apparently – its message wasn’t urgent enough or timely enough to keep people off the roads.

Like Shepherd, I don’t think fingers should be pointed at anyone or blame assessed. The National Weather Service did its job the best it knew how.  And surely, decision-makers listened and reacted with the best intentions.  The outcome is best summarized as the combination of a somewhat uncertain forecast, hesitant decision-makers, and the eventuality of hazardous conditions in a densely-populated, vulnerable area at the wrong time.

(Washington, D.C. readers: this has a lot of parallels to D.C.’s Commutageddon experience from 2011. Related: Learning from Commutageddon | Would a Commutageddon repeat in D.C.? )

Despite the convergence of those factors – which proved impossible to overcome – weather forecasters and decision makers can learn from this event.

Forecasters in the South – where winter weather is rare – should think about how to more effectively communicate the risk of hazardous conditions more urgently, even when there is uncertainty. Decision-makers should gain a better appreciation of the vulnerability of the region to even just a little bit of frozen precipitation when temperatures are subfreezing – especially given their lack of resources to deal with it. And forecasters and decision-makers should jointly develop plans to prevent yesterday’s scenario from repeating.

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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