Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Huge Atlanta Snow Traffic Mess/Fail Due To Unheeded Warnings

The news that I'm sure you've seen out of Atlanta is epic and horrendous.
Yesterdays snow and traffic disaster in Atlanta.  

When a snowstorm- not a big one, maybe one or two inches, hit during the middle of the day Tuesday, everybody piled into their cars at once and tried to flee for home.

Many people, including some children on school buses, were stranded on the freeways for eight, ten, even 12 hours. 

Some people were still trapped on the freeways early this morning when it was almost time for commuters to start heading into work.

Annoyingly, some victims of the Atlanta snow complained that meteorologists didn't warn them the snow was coming, but the record shows they did, with watches going up more than a day before the storm and more serious warnings many hours before the first flakes fell.

This was not a huge forecasting error, as some in Atlanta area municipal government would have it.     It wasn't. Meteorologists were pretty much right about the timing and intensity of the storm around Atlanta.

The real problem seems to be that government officials, and many citizens of the area, didn't know how to respond to the weather warnings.

The fact that everyone left their schools and offices at about the same time during the day Tuesday  as the snow arrived meant everybody was on the icy roads at once, so nobody went anywhere.

The city and region was ill prepared to treat the roads with salt and sand, and few motorists had much experience, or the necessary snow tires, to navigate the ice.

Given Atlanta's poor performance record of managing snow and ice storms, why didn't they just call off school for the day?

True, it wasn't snowing in the morning, when parents bundled the kids off to school. But the snow was accurately forecast to start by midday, which you'd think somebody would have realized the trip home from school would be problematic.

Even if the snow didn't materialize one snow day on a day in which it didn't snow isn't THAT big a deal.

And what of the major employers in the Atlanta metro region? Haven't they ever heard of telecommuting?  Granted, productivity might have slumped a bit for the day if many employers stayed home, opened up their laptops and tried to get work done in the home office.

But how productive is it to have their workers stranded and freezing on freeways for most of the day?  Instead of sending everyone for the doors when it started snowing at midday, a lot of employers could have told many of their employers to stay home and work Tuesday.

The forecasts were out on Monday. The workers could have taken their material home with them Monday evening.

I also don't think a lot of people understand the system of watches and warnings the National Weather Service puts out when a dangerous storm is approaching.  A watch means to prepare for a likely storm, and a warning means the storm is imminent or already happening.  A lot of people don't make the distinction.

Plus, storm warnings sometimes go up and the storm doesn't prove to be that bad. So people are lulled into thinking the storm won't amound to anything the next time a warning goes up.

This isn't unique to Atlanta. People have died or gotten in danger in storms as diverse as the Joplin, Missouri tornado in 2011 and flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont, also in 2011.

The National Weather Service and emergency managers are wrestling with language they'd use in different degrees of storm intensity.  But how do you effectively inform the public to take mild precautions for a middling storm, and extreme precautions for an enormous, dangerous storm?

It's a puzzling alchemy, especially since different people respond to different warnings in varying ways. Plus, it's human nature not to respond to a warning unless they actually see the danger with their own eyes. 

People don't take cover from tornadoes until the funnels are right on top of them. People don't get out of the way of flash floods until they see the muddy, debris choked water racing right towards them. And urbanites don't take snowstorms seriously until the flakes are really flying.

So, if you get an unprepared, poorly planned region with little municipal oversight and coordination, and a population not used to emergencies, we'll get a lot more ugly, and maybe deadlier urband and suburan disasters in America in the future.

Here's a video of what happens when people venture out in the South with no snow tires on roads that haven't not been sanded and plowed.


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