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Weather Experts: It's 'Wrong' To Call Atlanta Storm Unexpected

Traffic is snarled along the I-285 perimeter north of Atlanta's metro area Wednesday. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has called Tuesday's snow storm "unexpected" — prompting a response from weather forecasters.
David Tulis
Traffic is snarled along the I-285 perimeter north of Atlanta's metro area Wednesday. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has called Tuesday's snow storm "unexpected" — prompting a response from weather forecasters.

Meteorologists are used to people faulting their weather predictions. But when Georgia's Gov. Nathan Deal called Tuesday's crippling winter storm "unexpected," he drew responses from several forecasters. One answer came from the head of the American Meteorological Society, who also lives in Georgia.

AMS President J. Marshall Shepherd, a professor at the University of Georgia in Athens (about an hour from Atlanta) says, "as soon as I saw what was unfolding with kids being stranded in schools, 6+ hour commutes, and other horror stories, I knew it was coming, I knew it."

And then it came: people hinting that meteorologists had left Atlanta and other Georgia towns vulnerable to a "rush hour from hell," as Mark wrote for The Two-Way earlier today.

"Some in the public, social medial or decision-making positions would 'blame' the meteorologists," Shepherd wrote in a blog post published Wednesday. The post, titled "An Open Thank You to Meteorologists in Atlanta," was highlighted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jim Galloway today.

To those who say that they were told the storm would stay south of Atlanta, and that there were no storm watches or warnings before Tuesday, Shepherd has a simple response: "Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, and Wrong!"

He cites a bulletin from the National Weather Service just before 5 a.m. on Monday — more than 24 hours before the storm turned Atlanta's streets and highways into virtual parking lots. The report includes counties that make up the Atlanta metro area:


"455 AM EST MON JAN 27 2014



This isn't to suggest there's a full-on feud brewing between Georgia's politicians and its weather experts. The governor isn't mentioned by name in Sheperd's post. And he acknowledges, "Our decision-makers have a tough job given these circumstances, and I know they try to make the best decisions with the information they have."

Perhaps the problem is the terminology, Shepherd says. The public, and its leaders, might not realize the degree of certainty that underpins words such as "watch" and "warning." A watch, he notes, means 2-4 inches of snow, or noteworthy freezing rain or sleet, might fall in a day or less.

Shepherd asks if the public might respond better to a weather index or numbers that signify a storm's potential impact. And he said meteorologists should also avoid confusing their audience with an overabundance of possible weather models.

He invited government officials to discuss ways for everyone to improve — conveniently enough, the American Meteorological Society's annual meeting will be held in Atlanta next week.

"The theme is 'Extreme Weather-Climate and the Built Environment: New Perspectives, Opportunities, and Tools,' " Shepherd wrote. "The Atlanta 'snow' event is a poster child for this theme."

In the meantime, it would help if officials and the public monitored weather forecasts, he said, rather than relying on a "snapshot" of the weather that might be proved inaccurate as a storm develops

That seemed to be the case with the officials at a news conference led by Deal late Tuesday, when he began his remarks by saying, "As you know, we have been confronted with an unexpected storm that has hit the metropolitan Atlanta area."

Deal went on to say the government's plans for the storm had been made based on predictions that it would miss the city, or only give it "a mild dusting."

For his part, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is quoted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying, "I'm not going to get into the blame game, but the crisis that we are going through is across the region."

But Reed also acknowledged, "Government, schools and business[es] closing at the same time, and releasing everybody out into the city was a mistake."

Marshall isn't alone in rebuffing the idea that the storm came out of nowhere — Al Roker backed him up on NBC's Today show this morning.

"The mayor and the governor got on TV yesterday and said, 'Oh, this wasn't expected,' " Roker said. "And that's not true."

He added that the storm and its path had been predicted Monday.

"They took a gamble. They didn't want to pre-treat the roads; I don't think they wanted to spend the money and do what they needed to," Roker said. "And then ... everybody started going home right around noon."

And that signaled the beginning of the traffic snarls that have still locked cars into place and stranded residents.

"This was poor planning on the mayor's part and the governor's part, pure and simple," Roker said. "They were warned about it. They should have been prepared for it. And people are still suffering."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.