Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why Were People Unprepared?

A historic blizzard. An ice storm that left 1,500,000 people without power. Tornado damage. All from the same storm.

The Blizzard of 2011 was one for the record books. And, even though it was preceded by record warmth in many areas, you knew it was coming three days in advance! The televisions were filled Saturday with forecasts of winter storm conditions. 

I was reading a story Sunday my local newspaper’s web site about the pending storm and was amused to find these comments:
I was amused to read that we “never get it right” and that we’d actually get a “dusting.” Just hours later, winter storm watches were issued for a vast region. 

The "dusting" of snow in the Wichita area!
Some people are calling it "The Blizzard of Oz".
The photo above depicts what actually occurred. The forecasts were amazingly accurate, which leads to a question:

Is there as science that has accomplished more with less recognition than meteorology, the science of weather?

If medicine had reduced deaths from cancer by 90%, do you think that fact would be widely known? Of course it would! Universities and drug companies would issue press releases, Nobel prizes would be given out, and the medical team invited to the White House.

Meteorology has reduced tornado deaths by more than 95%, -- which translates (given today’s population) to more than a thousand saved lives a year on average – a stunning scientific achievement that goes almost unrecognized.

It isn’t just tornadoes. We have completely eliminated a once-frequent type of airline crash and we have saved tens of thousands of lives in hurricanes. This is the story I tell in Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather and it makes for gripping reading. But, there is a bigger issue than perhaps meteorologists' bruised egos. 

Take a look at this photo from The Chicago Tribune.
The photo depicts hundreds of cars, buses, and other vehicles stuck on Lakeshore Drive, one of Chicago’s busiest thoroughfares. People were stranded in the extreme cold for hours.

Why were some caught unprepared by the storm?

Here is a theory: The outdated image of meteorologists “never getting it right” lessens the credibility of these urgent forecasts and warnings. So, people are unneccessarily inconvenienced, businesses unnecessarily lose money, and lives are unneccesarily lost. 

While Warnings is my modest contribution to changing the way people think about weather, there is only so much one book can do.  I don’t know what the other answers might be, but I’m open to any suggestions people might have.


  1. It's not extreme weather that strands cars, it's people who don't believe the forecasters & subsequently drive into that extreme weather & get stranded. Or worse.

  2. Mike - two things.

    1) The sensationalize media coverage of weather makes many people tune it out, or at least not think of the severity of some situations because the media covers any rather significant weather situation with INSANE amounts of coverage.

    2) Why did Illinois DOT allow the road to stay open? If conditions are terrible or forecast to be terrible very soon, why not shut down the road, clear the cars, and be done?

  3. Joel,

    Agree with you on #1. One reason I stopped doing television is because of the pressure to "hype" storms.

    I advise people to find a trusted source (actually try to keep track) of weather information and stick with it. Forecast "shopping" is a recipe for frustration.

    #2. The police and highway patrol can't be everywhere at all times. I tend to believe people should take responsibility for their actions. Given the intensity of last night's storm (scroll down to the Jim Cantore caught off guard by lightning) in Chicago, I don't believe anyone except emergency workers should have been out.


  4. This has always been a problem, anywhere and everywhere we have lived in the US. I think people have to start slowing down and start paying attention to what may come from the sky, no matter wherever weather seems to change, but hard to convince anyone to do just that 5 minutes of watching or listening to the weather. I don't know what will change people at this point..... someone must think of a fool proof way to do this, and with all the smart people all over, there must be a way that will do this.This is one of my pet peeves and has always been. Mandatory weather radios, one per house like radon or smoke detectors, might be an answer. Maybe schools should talk about this a bit more often, do more weather drills, have more people come in from various places that employ folks that have weather personnel on staff, National Weather Service, the Weather Underground, etc. The, and other businesses that employ people that work at airports, Fire Departments, the local TV Stations, and other sources ( authors of weather books!!!) that are around, and they should all do that often and for free. Maybe starting with the kids may help eventually. The younger the better...

  5. Thanks Anonymous, good posting,

    I assure you that I am out spreading the word (just some of my speeches are posted at ).

    However, I disagree that we should necessarily do it "free." Our time is valuable just like doctors, lawyers and any other professional. In fact, I've wondered at times if that may be part of the problem: Weather information is free so people put little value on it.


  6. Mike, I know your time is worth compensation, and the data you bring is likely to be outstanding, but I wonder that in the beginning that the schools wanting Weather Folks to come and talk to the kids would turn away because of not being paid for their valuable time, and effort in getting to a school, etc. I don't know much about school systems and their thoughts when people come in to talk to the kids nowadays, because mine are now parents of their own and I am a Granny for around 9+ years now. I do agree with you that your time should be compensated somehow. My error. And to be the Professionals you all are does need something for the time you take off. ( I looked into being a Weather person at many points in my own life, but never lived close enough to any school that taught the classes. I know it takes many years of school, like Doctors, Lawyers, etc) I'll never stop loving the weather in all its forms and never stop looking toward the skies, esp. on storm days! So there are my thoughts for what its worth and thanks for writing back to me! That is important to me! Take Care and OH! Thanks for all the updates for this very strong winter storm that hit down here in North Texas, too. I enjoyed reading them all and shared it with friends that like the weather too. I also like your other things you share about the weather, maps and graphs and things. Please keep sharing when you have the chance and I, for 1 will keep on checking them out! Debbie

  7. Debbie,

    Thanks SO MUCH for a wonderful posting. Just to reassure you, I do school talks for free. I also donated a number of copies of my book (which is a STORY about heroes saving lives, not "science" or textbook) to a local youth charity for Christmas.

    For your birthday, ask for a copy of my book. Given your professed love of weather, I believe you would enjoy it!

    Thanks for commenting and reading the blog.


  8. Mike:

    Over the years I have been less and less enthused by the weather forecasts I was getting from the nightly news and from some of the antics of the Weather Channel. What I have found much more reliable and more to my tastes is where they not just slap some fancy blue screen tech at you but walk you through what the models forecast and where their own experience thinks the models are wrong.

    This was very apparent where I lived for the Christmas Blizzard. Three days before the storm hit the local nightly news was just giving us what the model forecast of 1-3 inches, where as the Accuweather forecaster showed those model runs and why they were going to change over the next 2 days. His forecast was for 6-12 inches: We got 10.

    More info, less hype.

  9. Bob,

    Thank you for the compliment to AccuWeather and WeatherData (AccuWeather west). Our forecasters have worked very, very hard with this rash of winter storms and they appreciate the recognition.


  10. Mike,

    Kudos to you and all the other weather professionals we all take for granted and gratuitously diss so often.

    I suspect it's not just weather hype that's contributing to "tune out", but all the hype we're subjected to in general.

    One option for severe weather alerts might be for carriers to broadcast text messages on their cell networks. Who doesn't have a cell phone these days? If it's only done when there's real danger, e.g., tornado sightings, impending blizzards, etc. people will likely respect it.

    David in Davis

  11. It's probably worthwhile to consider, as well, that your comparison to medicine reducing cancer deaths by 90% is somewhat specious. Meteorology didn't develop their forecasting ability suddenly, it's been a gradual developmental process, over time gleaning more understanding of the formative processes and probabilities behind weather patterns. But your implication about cancer deaths seems to present an immediate change to medicine that revolutionizes the industry of cancer treatment. While both are industries built upon a developed practical wealth of information, neither the medical field nor the meteorological field developed their effectiveness overnight. It's one thing to crow about a sudden development, but I think the majority of people outside of maybe the Northeast, appreciate a reasonable amount of reliability from their weather forecasts. (If I remember correctly, Massachusetts only enjoys about a 65% accuracy rating on our forecasts). For the most part, people DO appreciate the effectiveness of their weather reporters, but that 95% was not an overnight development. Scientists have spent decades researching to get to that level.

  12. Nova,

    Points well taken but consider...

    Since President Nixon declared "War on Cancer" 38 years ago, cancer deaths are UP! (note: all statistics are in death rates)

    We have spent tens of billions on automotive safety and reduced deaths 40%, a great achievement but at high cost.

    We have completely eliminated downburst-related airline crashes, , and cut tornado deaths by 95%. Tens of thousands (and that is the right order of magnitude) were SAVED in Hurricane Katrina.

    I have yet to see an article about how the level of heroism (and that is the right word) by meteorologists saving lives in Katrina or the meteorologists who worked -- literally -- 30-hour shifts in the recent blizzard (scroll down to posting below).



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