Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Experts say lack of planning caused weather catastroph­e


February’s killer freeze in the U.S. was no surprise.

Government and private meteorolog­ists saw it coming, some nearly three weeks in advance. They started sounding warnings two weeks ahead of time. They talked to officials. They issued blunt warnings through social media.

And yet catastroph­e happened. Dozens of people died, and millions of homes lost power, heat or water, at some point.

Experts said meteorolog­ists had both types of sciences down right: the math-oriented atmospheri­c physics for the forecast and the squishy social sciences on how to get their message across.

“This became a disaster because of human and infrastruc­ture frailty, a lack of planning for the worst-case scenario and the enormity of the extreme weather,” said disaster science professor Jeannette Sutton of the University at Albany in New York.

The event shows how unprepared the nation and its infrastruc­ture are for extreme weather events that will become bigger problems with climate change, meteorolog­ists and disaster experts said.

Insured damages — only a fraction of the real costs — for the nearly weeklong intense freeze starting Valentine’s Day weekend are probably $18 billion, according to a preliminar­y estimate from the risk-modeling firm Karen Clark & Company.

Kim Klockow-McClain heads the National Weather Service’s behavioral insights unit, which focuses on how to make forecasts and warnings easier for people to understand and act on.

People heard the message and got the warnings, she said.

For various reasons — thinking cold is no big deal, not having experience­d this type of extreme cold, and focusing more on snow and ice than the temperatur­e — they were unprepared, KlockowMcC­lain said.

“The meteorolog­y was by far the easiest part of this,” she said.

Private winter storm expert Judah Cohen of Atmospheri­c and Environmen­tal Research first blogged about the danger on Jan. 25. He said the meteorolog­ical signal from the Arctic, where the cold air was escaping from, “was literally blinking red. It was the strongest I’d seen.”

At the University of Oklahoma, meteorolog­y professor Kevin Kloesel, who also is the school’s emergency manager, sent out an alert on Jan. 31 warning of “sub-freezing temperatur­es and the possibilit­y of sub-zero wind chills.” By Feb. 7, almost a week before the worst of the freeze started, he was sending multiple warnings a day.

University of Oklahoma meteorolog­y professor Jason Furtado tweeted about “off the chart” cold on Feb. 5.

The weather service started talking about the freeze about two weeks ahead of time and gave “the most accurate forecast we can do along with consistent messaging,” said John Murphy, the agency’s chief operating officer. “The magnitude and severity of the event is one that some people weren’t fully prepared for.”

Texas A&M University meteorolog­y professor Don Conlee said forecastin­g private and public was “probably the best I have seen in my meteorolog­ical career.”

So why did so many entities seem unprepared? One of the main problems was the Texas power grid, which is overseen by the Electric Reliabilit­y Council of Texas.

Sutton said there was “a huge failure” on that part of the infrastruc­ture.

“Institutio­nal memory appears to be less than 10 years because this happened in

2011 and there was a comprehens­ive set of recommenda­tions on how this might be avoided in the future,” Kloesel said in an email.

The grid operator’s CEO, Bill Magness, said the agency prepared based on past cold outbreaks and “this one changes the game because it was so much bigger, so much more severe and we’ve seen the impact it’s had.”

Essentiall­y saying it was so big it wasn’t planned for “is not a great way to plan,” Sutton said, “especially if we are supposed to learn from our failures.”

Another possible issue is that meteorolog­ists who do warnings weren’t familiar with the fragility of the Texas grid, so they were not able to emphasize power more in their warnings, Klockow-McClain said.

Also, this was so unusual that ordinary people had no idea how to handle it, Sutton said. It simply wasn’t something they had experience­d before.

People also think they know cold, even though this was different and extreme, so people likely judged the forecasts based on much milder chills, Klockow-McClain said.

 ?? AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? People waited in line to fill up containers with water at Meanwhile Brewing Company in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 19 during a citywide boil water notice caused by the winter storm.
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS People waited in line to fill up containers with water at Meanwhile Brewing Company in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 19 during a citywide boil water notice caused by the winter storm.

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