The D.C. thundersnow Commute from Hell: What could we have done better?

For a long time to come, the Snowmaggedon of February 2010 will serve as the gold standard for weather-imposed paralysis in and around Washington.

Yet even by that exacting standard, the past two weeks have posed a challenging series of weather events. Challenging not only to forecast, but also challenging to communicate effectively to the public and help everyone make the best decision.

Let’s turn the clock back here to last Wednesday afternoon, when a winter-weather onslaught left many of the region’s byways cluttered with stranded motorists. It was a traumatic episode for thousands upon thousands of Washingtonians who spent in some cases up to 13 hours just trying to get home.

What went wrong? Well, if you read the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang’s (CWG) Jason Samenow (a longtime friend by the way), it was in part the forecasts rendered by people like me: “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).”

For the record, here’s what we at this particular television media outlet were saying about Commutageddon the night before it happened: “Tomorrow evening's commute should be the worst time for driving in and around the D.C. area. This is expected to be a very heavy, wet snow which may cause some branches to come down and could possibly lead to a few power outages tomorrow night.”

Prophetic, right? Even so, we here at the ABC7 weather station aren’t about to go around beating our meteorological chests. We could have been more persistent, more emphatic, more resounding in our warnings about the fateful Wednesday drive time.

The forecast process is a three-part system: We meteorologists make the forecast, we effectively communicate the forecast information and you the public make a good-weather related decision. If any part fails, the entire process fails. Last week, we did not do the best job we could have in effectively communicating the forecast and the “weather risk,” if you will, so that everyone from government to individuals could and would make the best decision. It’s one thing to capitalize on the science and deliver a forecast that accurately predicts what the skies will bring. However, if we don’t articulate the implications of our forecasting tools in ways that takes people out of harm’s way, then we have failed.

So that’s the lesson of Commutageddon.

Now for the lesson of this week’s so-called storm. As we’ve written on this site many times, a monster system raced through the Midwest early this week, leaving havoc in its wake. Blizzard, storm, cataclysm – that’s what this event was to people living in our country’s midsection.

Here in the Washington region, municipalities mobilized. Take a look at what happened Monday night. Trucks in the region spread salt on area roads. A winter weather advisory was issued by the National Weather Service and the federal government announced “unscheduled liberal leave and telecommuting.”

Then freezing rain advisories went up from Tuesday night into early Wednesday, when the temperature reached 52 degrees. The actual probability of significant icing was only about 20 percent. More telecommuting for Wednesday was announced. Rain did finally arrive Tuesday night, yet even by 11 p.m., the NWS continued to keep freezing rain advisories posted as plain rain fell. I don’t think issuing the "advisory of least regret" (as some call the NWS' worst case-scenario advisories) effectively communicates the actual risk.

In fact, those measures sounded a lot like the work of a panicked officialdom scared and shellshocked by the events of the previous week. There was simply zero chance that this week’s rain was ever going to produce anything on the magnitude of Commutageddon. Did we effectively communicate that? What do you think?

What gets me is that despite these relatively benign conditions, the media kept referring to what didn’t happen on Tuesday night as a “storm.” Every time you turned on the TV or tuned into the radio, there was a “storm” coming. We were in "storm watch," "storm teams" mobilized, people sat at "storm desks." Egypt was at historic crossroads and most of the local media was desperately trying to find even a little ice on any crossroad. There was, in fact, never a storm coming.

Another consideration: Where do personal responsibility and “the media” responsibility enter these weather-related decisions? Our forecasts are now highly accurate with a 24-hour accuracy now above 90 percent. Do we need to have “Storm” something lead our newscasts and media headlines for any and all winter weather no matter what the probability or risk? Do we unnecessarily generate concern or even worse fear about something that has very little chance of happening? I’m afraid we (the “Weather Enterprise”) are all guilty. Guilty of not communicating better and over reacting and over-advising and over-warning without effectively communicating the actual risk. And we are guilty of not taking a bit more personal responsibility in thinking we can drive at our normal speed on every road and it’s the government’s job to make sure we can do it every day of the year.

The Midwest blizzard was life-threatening, tornadoes are life-threatening, hurricanes are life-threatening. Commutageddon was life-threatening{ }– we got the forecast right but we didn’t communicate the risk.

We can do better and we sure will try and do better. The promise of modern meteorology is not met if too many of us make unnecessarily poor or dangerous weather-related decisions and, yes, unnecessarily frighten anyone for low-risk weather.