Posted: 5:59 pm Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Talking about the weather in Atlanta — and maybe fixing it 

By Jim Galloway

012914 snow 7

Traffic on Atlanta’s Downtown Connector in the midst of last Tuesday’s snow storm. John Spink, jspink@ajc.com

The time has come to admit that, perhaps, we don’t understand what our favorite weather personalities are really saying. And that our favorite weather personalities may not understand what we really need to know.

The annual convention of the American Meteorological Society abandoned Atlanta on Wednesday. It was an ironic, five-day event, coming only days after the Snowjam ’14 debacle. Rather like Denver opening its arms to the National Brotherhood of Monday Morning Quarterbacks.

Yes, there were a few snickers and rolled eyes. But in the vastness of the Georgia World Congress Center, it was also possible to find thoughtful, reflective and even conservative thoughts on what went wrong in metro Atlanta.

I was directed to David Titley, a retired rear admiral who now runs Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. Titley was also the chief operating officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when Hurricane Sandy struck the Jersey shore in 2012. So while he is not a fan of after-action reports, he understands their necessity.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who has shouldered much of the blame for last week’s paralysis, has appointed a task force filled with weather men, state bureaucrats and trucking specialists to peel apart the problem we have with minute amounts of frozen precip.

But in a session at the convention center’s Starbucks, Titley said findings are likely to point to systemic problems rather than personalities. “It’s almost always a chain, which could have been broken in a number of places – a school superintendent. A county supervisor. Maybe a different or a more urgent warning from a weather provider,” he said.

What Atlanta lacked, he said, was anyone – high, low or middling — willing to step out of his box, shake the metro area by its lapels, and point out the obvious: That afternoon snowfall on warm but rapidly cooling roads was a recipe for disaster.

The key may be to rethink how weather information is packaged, said the retired admiral, who knows about such things. During his Navy years, he helped develop a system for “pirate forecasts” off the coast of Somalia. Cloudy with a chance of cutlasses and such.

Titley said weather forecasters need to start taking their cues from physicians in the way they characterize risk. For instance, the storm that hit Atlanta last week was a shifting target. “It was not a slam dunk that this was going to happen. Atlanta was on the edge,” he said.

Yet a 20 percent chance of snow can easily be misunderstood. To most civilians, it means an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather. But let’s also say that on an average day, the chances of ice and snow bringing down metro Atlanta is one in a thousand. Titley did a quick calculation in his head.

“I would have said, ‘Hey, boss, today there is a 200-times greater likelihood of us having a really, really bad shutdown,” Titley said.

Somebody might have listened to that.

By this time, we had been joined by a harried Marshall Shepherd, a University of Georgia professor and president of the AMS. Most people, he admitted, don’t know the difference between a watch and a warning.

“And even if they did, how does that translate to ‘Your roads are going to lock up at lunch time’?” Titley interjected.

Before he hurried off, Shepherd expressed what had to be, at the AMS convention, the worst implication of Atlanta’s Snowjam: “Sometimes I think people don’t hear us. Sometimes I think people hear us but don’t understand, and sometimes I don’t think they want to hear us.”

About that last point. The public sparring over global warming has politicized meteorology in a way that was once limited to anthropology and objections to Darwinism. One result is distrust.

In his first crack at explaining Snowjam, Gov. Nathan Deal felt entirely comfortable heaping blame on the National Weather Service, which issued the proper bulletin at 3:38 a.m. that Tuesday, while praising local weather voices who “got it right.”

That reveals a basic understanding of where and how weather data originates, Titley said. “Everybody is using billions of dollars of federal weather infrastructure. The Weather Channel is, every TV station is,” he said. “Whether we admit it or not, the weather enterprise floats on the backbone of the federal government.”

And yet trust is, in fact, a crucial ingredient. Titley liked Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s recent announcement that the city would collaborate with The Weather Channel in the future.

“You can hire a private forecaster. And if you don’t like what he or she is telling you, you can always fire them,” Titley said. But if such a partnership is to work, weather forecasters need to be more in tune with government’s needs – school transportation schedules, traffic patterns, road temperatures and such.

In such partnerships, obligations need to extend far beyond dropping a storm warning in the next guy’s lap. Lapels need to be grabbed.

Titley recounted an appearance by billionaire T. Boone Pickens at last year’s AMS gathering.

At one point, the feisty former presidential candidate needled his meteorological audience. ”I know more about the weather business than you know about mine. And that ain’t the way it’s supposed to be,” Pickens said.

That’s something every weather personality should consider.

25 comments
Charles50
Charles50

I still don't get it.  Everyone is looking to national forecasters when our own LOCAL forecaster got it completely correct.  I mean come on it doesn't hurt to have back up, but Channel 2 for one has invested quite a bit of money into their systems.  If they can accurately tell you when a tornado is going to hit your street, then I think you should believe them when they say snow is coming.  

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

DS posted "government leaders need to be held accountable".  

What about the metro area school superintendents and hundreds of employers who had the sole authority and didn't cancel school or work?  It is they who are "responsible for understanding the implications [of changing weather forecasts] and responding appropriately".

DS
DS

"...obligations need to extend far beyond dropping a storm warning in the next guy’s lap. Lapels need to be grabbed."

Ah, no. Meteorologists give the forecast to government officials, who are then responsible for understanding the implications and responding appropriately. That's their job. If they aren't good at it, let's elect someone else who is.

I know some political supporters are tempted to deflect blame, purely for political reasons, but government leaders need to be held accountable. 

I don't think Deal handled this well, but at least he's been willing to say "the buck stops here." He's right.

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

Weather politics is about to move off of the AJC in favor of a Democrat lawyer hiring another lawyer for a trial against the state ethics commission that wouldn't let her continue to pursue Republican Deal as long as she wished.  She resigned when she refused to accept that the case had been thoroughly vetted and closed.  This is raw meat for the ravenous AJC predator Democrats in an election year.

AuntieChrist
AuntieChrist

David Titley, a retired rear admiral: "But if such a partnership is to work, weather forecasters need to be more in tune with government’s needs – school transportation schedules, traffic patterns, road temperatures and such."

Since this 'expert' is a retired Admiral, I will use a military analogy to show just how full of BS that statement is. It is like saying that the military G2--the intelligence branch--should be more in tune with the Generals' needs--whether the tanks are in position, do we have transports for the troops, are the roads and bridges ready. If an attack may be coming, G2 issues the warning, the generals in charge are responsible for preparing for the attack. Is military intelligence supposed to say, "well I better not say an attack is highly probable, that may cause General Halftrack to overreact, so I'll just say there's only a 50% chance. That is risible. Expecting forecasters to assume that attitude is equally risible.

sf33
sf33

Time to take heed and plan for next time. For sure it will snow again.

SaraJames
SaraJames

Titley is blaming what happened on weather forecasters' failure to communicate and systemic problems rather than personalities in last weeks snowjam, Titley only got it partially right.  We have major systemic problems alright, but it isn't the weather forecaster's failure to communicate. Everybody was on the same page after 3:38 a.m Tuesday with the exception of the Governor, the head of GDOT, the head of GEMA and the Mayor. Unfortunately, the source of the systemic problems ARE the Governor (and his cronies) and the Mayor ALL falling asleep at the wheel. They were supposed to have their act together after 2011, hence systemic.  


I don't know Titley, but I'm sorry, the reference to Ross Perot's statement is nonsensical.  I'll take it a step further and just say I am not impressed with his reflection of what went wrong.  I would say more, but I wouldn't know the man from "Adam's housecat" if I passed him on the street and don't want to disparage him totally from one article that makes him sound (possibly unjustly) like a blowhard.

Enoch19
Enoch19

The only people still wired up about blame for the ice in Atlanta are the dems hoping that somehow they can parley the blame game into support for that little weasel Jason Carter.

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

"Gov. Nathan Deal, who has shouldered much of the blame" from the AJC and other Democrats.


Titley said “It was not a slam dunk that this was going to happen. Atlanta was on the edge”.  Right in retrospect, but we were told when we went to bed that most of the storm was going to be to the south with only up to an inch of snow starting in the afternoon.  It came earlier and heavier.

ReallyAJC
ReallyAJC

If you live in a city where the mayor (or gov) uses local TV meteorologists on a task force, you have seriously got to consider moving. 

EdUktr
EdUktr

Perhaps the sole benefit of electing Democrat leaders—is that major storms will never turn out to be as damaging as expected.

... According to liberal newspapers.

Bernie31
Bernie31

The approximate (6) Six Terrible Snowstorms that have Hit Atlanta over the past 40 years were all predicted and warned as advised. There outcome was as predicted - BAD! 

In every instance It was US..The Public..We The People who failed to Heed the WARNINGS!

Our Political Leaders are No Better. This time The Bell Ringer did not Ring The Bell. 

GEMA"S Charlie English....is that person.

uh..huh

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

@SaraJames - Add to your short exception list of 3 politicians the metro area school superintendents and hundreds of employers who didn't cancel school or work until mid-day that caused the initial traffic jam until roads became impassible with ice.  Since there were hundreds of decision makers that got caught, it proves attempted placing all of the blame on 3 politicians is misplaced.

A changed forecast that didn't get communicated well or in time was the problem.  Maybe the new task force will have more critical decision makers on the night shift and try to call things off via email pushes and the media.


CherokeeCounty
CherokeeCounty

Nikki Haley, Governor of SC, is a Democrat?

Who knew?

Don't parrot centrist, Enoch, he's always wrong...

Charles50
Charles50

@The_Centrist  That's interesting because people were raiding the stores all Monday evening.  In fact, that was one of the news stories about how shelves were being emptied.  That should have given someone pause to take another look.  And I could have sworn that on Monday evening, but DEFINITELY by Tuesday a.m. I SAW a map showing 1-2 inches of snow in METRO Atlanta.  And my weather app showed the snow coming in anytime between 9-2.  I'm sure I'm not the only person in metro Atlanta with this information.  I stayed home that day.

Charles50
Charles50

@EdUktr  No, maybe electing a Democratic leader is there is a chance he'll do something for ALL of the citizens of Georgia and not just a select few at the cost of everyone else.  And just maybe he'll treat our citizens with at least as much respect and dignity as he gives people he's trying to woo to the State.

AuntieChrist
AuntieChrist

@EdUktr No, the major benefit of electing competent leaders--in this state that means anyone other than a willfully ignorant conservative--is that when the possibility of snow, coupled with temperatures in the teens, GDOT employees will be on the ready to treat the roads when they ice over. They won't be at the Capital City Club posing for photo ops with GWTW, Rhett and Scarlett wannabes. We will also have a GEMA Director who actually knows the definition of "Emergency Management."

Charles50
Charles50

@Bernie31  Personally I think ole Charlie is the scapegoat here.  He took a bullet for the team.  1.  The Gov. may not have found out abut the storm until 9:00, but his staff knew about it much earlier.  Who do you think should have told the Gov?  2.  GEMA does not clear roads.   Surely GDOT has a damn radio and tv.  If they had PROPERLY treated the roads a lot of this problem would have been eliminated regardless of the time people left.  You might have had a traffic jam, but you would have had better roads to travel on which would have moved it along faster.

AuntieChrist
AuntieChrist

@The_Centrist School superintendents do not have the authority to get GDOT road clearing crews and their equipment mustered and put to work clearing the state and interstate highways. Niether does the Mayor of Atlanta. The superintendents, like everyone else caught in that nightmare, assumed we had  leadership with some scintilla of common sense, enough to know that snow turns quickly to ice in sub-20 degree temperatures, and that roads, unless salted or treated with brine, will become impassable. The only error the school officials made was thinking we have a competent government in this state.

SaraJames
SaraJames

@The_Centrist @SaraJames  You are absolutely right.  I was hasty in my post and left those decision makers out.  I stand corrected.

Charles50
Charles50

@AuntieChrist @The_Centrist  And there in lies the rub.  This wasn't just about who didn't make a friggin' call.  GDOT did not clear the roads before the snow came so even if there had been staggered releases a lot of folks probably would have been stuck in bad weather.  How do you treat only bridges and overpasses while saying you didn't want the sand to blow off the road so that's why you didn't treat it ahead of time.  That's just idiotic.

SaraJames
SaraJames

However, I respectfully disagree the changed forecast wasn't communicated well or in time if you are referring to the meteorologists.  We all know GEMA (Charley English) admitted delaying the news to the Governor's office.  But, the Governor should have been watching the weather reports while he was waiting on GEMA and GDOT to weigh in.