Wednesday, January 29, 2014

An “Open” Thank You Letter to Atlanta Meteorology Community”

As I watch the fallout from the Snow Fiasco in the Atlanta area, one thing is clear to me: “The buses had a tough time getting kids home, but meteorologists should not be thrown under the bus.”

Meteorologists from the National Weather Service (NWS) in Atlanta issued Watches and Warnings BEFORE the event and provided ample time for decisions to be made.  Yet, 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.

Some in the public, social medial or decision-making positions would “blame” the  meteorologists.  I began to hear things like “this was not expected in Atlanta” or “they said this was going to all be South of Atlanta” or “there were no Watches or Warnings until snow started falling or “weather is just unpredictable”.  Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, and Wrong!

I heard something very familiar within these statements with other recent high impact events.

The weather models produced a great track forecast for Hurricane Katrina days out (2005) yet meteorologists heard whispers that “we didn’t know where it was going.” In recent and deadly 2013 El Reno/Moore/Oklahoma City area tornado outbreaks, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center warned, days to multiple hours in advance, of the threat of tornadoes, yet I still saw media sources and people say, “those tornadoes came without warning."  Some models predicted 6 to 9 days out that Superstorm Sandy was going to oddly visit the Jersey Shore, yet people still said "oh no big deal, not a Category 3 hurricane" or worse, didn't evacuate.

Herein, I discuss why our National Weather Service, Television, Academic and Private Sector Meteorologists should be praised not condemned for handling of the Atlanta snow event of 2014. I also conclude with some lessons learned, from my perspective.

1. Watches and Warnings were issued in advance of the snow event and with plenty of time for decisions to be made. Here is text directly from the National Weather Service website on MONDAY at 4:55 am:

CLAYTON-COBB-DEKALB-GWINNETT-HENRY-NORTH FULTON-ROCKDALE-
SOUTH FULTON- INCLUDING THE CITIES OF...ATLANTA...CONYERS...DECATUR...
EAST POINT...LAWRENCEVILLE...MARIETTA
455 AM EST MON JAN 27 2014

...WINTER STORM WATCH IN EFFECT FROM TUESDAY MORNING THROUGH
WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON...

Early on Tuesday morning well before the crack of dawn (3:39 am to be exact), the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning with expectations of 1-2 inches of snow. Even for the mountain counties of Georgia, Winter Weather Advisories were issued.

One observation that has become apparent to me is that the public and perhaps some policy officials may not fully understand that a Watch, Warning, or Advisory has very specific meanings. They are not just generic “hey, be on alert” or “hey, get ready” warnings. Here (below) are criteria that I believe NWS Atlanta uses since I found it on their website http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/ffc/pdf/snow_measurement_guidelines.pdf (criteria can vary for different states or different regions of a state).

"Winter Storm Watch – Issued when the potential exists for 2 inches or more of snow in 12 hours, or 4 inches or more of snow in 24 hours. Also issued for potential of a quarter inch or more of freezing rain, or half an inch of sleet. In the North Georgia Mountains, the criteria are 3 inches in 12 hours or 4 inches in 24 hours.

Winter Storm Warning – Issued when a combination of snow, blowing snow, sleet, and/or freezing rain is likely to exceed warning criteria. Warning criteria are those detailed in the Winter Storm Watch.

Winter Weather Advisory – Issued when a combination of snow, sleet, and/or freezing rain is likely to have an impact, but is not expected to reach warning criteria."

2.  Another observation is that the public and decision-makers must pay attention to the “evolving forecast.” Yes, early in the week, projections were for the most significant snow and ice to be south of Atlanta. HOWEVER, the weather models consistently trended the snow totals more and more toward the Metro Atlanta area with almost each run. Clearly, the National Weather Service and our television colleagues picked up on that. Additionally, the heaviest snows indeed were south of Atlanta (as forecasted), but the forecasters (based on the Watches, Warnings, and Advisories issued) 12-36 hours out clearly saw the potential for significant (by Atlanta standards) snow in Metro Atlanta and mountain counties. Do you need more proof? Take a look at this Snow Map issued PRIOR to the snow event by AthensGeorgiaWeather.com, a group of well-trained meteorologists out of Athens, Georgia. They basically nailed it (http://www.athensgaweather.com/weather-blog/). My advice in these events is to watch the evolution of the forecast rather than a “snap shot” of it on a given day. Often, high-impact weather events are dynamic and rapidly-evolving. 

3. Overall, the Atlanta event was a well-forecasted and well-warned event but public perception can be misleading. The Weather service did just fine with this event, and I think the majority of our TV colleagues and other dissemination sources did a good job of providing new information as it was coming in. I still get annoyed when a person says a “meteorologist” is a job where you can be wrong most of the time and still get paid.  In reality, weather forecasting is quite good these days. However, as humans, we tend to remember past forecasts that were wrong or personally affected us in some way. In other words, we just don’t remember all the “right” days and zero in like a laser on the random “wrong” day. As I often say, a kicker in the Super Bowl could have made every field goal all year, but if he misses one in the Super Bowl, some will vilify him as a “bad kicker”.

However, in this case, the Atlanta forecast was very good. Yes, there were some challenges with the progression of the northern side of the snow potential and where the cut-off line would be, but NWS still handled in a credible manner based on what the models were giving us. Our modeling and  observational technology is some of the best in the world and if you don’t believe it, reflect on Sandy, Moore Tornadoes, or even this event (if you actually step back and look at it objectively).

I am still amazed that people ridicule a meteorologist, then with a straight face, ask me what I think about the Groundhog’s prediction or whether the Almanac’s prediction for a Super Bowl Blizzard (Not going to happen) is accurate. Really? But, I digress.

Lessons learned from the this Atlanta Snow event from, my perspective:

1.  The public needs to clearly understand what Watch, Warning, and Advisory mean rather than what they “think” they mean. Also, they must understand that a Watch for a winter event has nuanced differences than tornado, hurricane, or other warnings.

2.  Should we develop “warnings” that are more clearly meaningful to the public like a number or index? Research and scholarly discussion will be required, but increasingly, social science research is revealing that how people consume information is as critical as giving them the right information.

3.  The public must watch the evolving forecast not a snapshot they saw 2  or so days ago. The forecasts change.

4.  A friend (not a meteorologist but an intelligent, attentive citizen) noted that a few media outlets, at times, showed 4 different model scenarios at times. She noted that this is confusing to the public. I agree. We, as meteorologists, use an array of model tools, diagnostics, or data. Does the public need to see “the sausage making” or the scenarios we weigh out?  When these scenarios are shown on TV or a website, we, as professionals, know how to consume them, but the public may be confused or misinterpret the message.

5. Forecasting capacity in the 1-5 day window is quite good, but as we get to local-to-regional scales and 1-24 hour time frame (“the mesoscale”), the processes are not as well-represented in the models. We know where improvements are needed. Budget cuts, travel restrictions, and other policy decisions hinder research and development that lead to improvements for citizens.

6.  We still have challenges in how weather information is consumed, interpreted, or viewed by policymakers and decision-makers. This is ultimately the root of the Atlanta mess from Tuesday, in my view. I don't believe "anyone" is necessarily to blame. The situation simply points out that we still have challenges in communicating across the science-decisionmaker-public "gap."  

My friends in northern states make fun of our response, but there is a reason we live in the great state of Georgia, we don't like snow or don't really want to deal with it :). We are not equipped to deal with it, so enough, enough already with the jokes :). 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.

Accuweather Senior Vice President Mike Smith has some thoughts on this at http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2014/01/this-book-should-be-required-reading.html. He has even written a book on the topic. Along with Mike, there are other scholarly and practical discussions on this matter. Ironically, the world’s largest meteorology/stakeholder meeting, American Meteorological Society (AMS) Annual Meeting is being held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta Sunday through Thursday of this coming week. We invite the public, policymakers, and other interested parties to come be a part of the process and solutions (http://annual.ametsoc.org/2014/). As the sitting President of AMS, I am happy to invite any decision maker to the plenary Presidential Forum on Monday morning (3 February at 9 am). The theme is "Extreme Weather-Climate and the Built Environment: New Perspectives, Opportunities, and Tools." The participants on Monday include top stakeholders, the FEMA director, and other high level corporate, media, and public officials. The Atlanta "snow" event is a poster child for this theme.


Colleagues at National Weather Service and in the media. Thank you!

36 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing. The media and the consumer need to invest more in closing our science tolerance gap.

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  2. Charleston, SC was on point.....Schools and most businesses decided by Monday afternoon to close up from Tuesday to reopen on Thursday....our
    streets are empty....

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  3. The National Weather Service may have gotten this right by adjusting, but I am telling you that the perception of most everyone (as passed along by the local news media) was that this storm was passing to the south of Atlanta. I heard nothing of any snow to an appreciable amount, and nothing of ice. Do you think people would have sent their children to school if they knew better? Do you think the school systems, government, and businesses would have done something different if they knew an ICE STORM was coming?

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    1. The thing is that it was not an "Ice Storm" by meteorological criteria. Observations from KATL indicate that the precipitation that fell in the area was primarily snow, with sleet occasionally mixed in....no freezing rain reported, certainly not to ice storm criteria.

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    2. Outside Athens, I heard Monday that we'd get 1-3" (we got just over 1" at my house), and that Atlanta would get more. Yes, I also heard uncertainty about the exact line, but that Atlanta would likely see white.

      And I think parents send kids to school if they are open. Parents have to work, and (unless homeschooling) you are truant not to!

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    3. That's the thing about weather. It changes and you have to keep up on the changes. It wasn't like the NWS changed it and hour before the snow came in. They changed the forecast and put out the advisory for Atlanta the day before the storm at 3:30pm.
      They updated again at 3:30 am and made it a warning. Now I don't know what the the TV stations were doing, maybe they just said, "screw it, let's use the forecast from Sunday." Or maybe state and city officials, who see snow once every 2 years or so, thought that even with the warnings, the odds were low that it would really happen and to close the city and not have snow come in would cost them a lot of money.
      Bottom line is the info was out there, the decision makers didn't bother to listen and the city paid for it.

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  4. Its is amazing our school, city, county, and state officials don't understand how to read a weather warning/watch/advisory. Thank you for reiterating this.

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    1. No, it's amazing that local forecasters don't understand how to read a weather advisory. They told us the city would get a dusting and the worst of the snow would be south of the city. They got it wrong...with disastrous results.

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  6. On WSB radio MONDAY morning they said 1 inch for Atlanta 1-3 south suburbs and east. Said the same thing Tuesday morning 4-9am said developing after morning rush hour. At 11 updated to 1-3 for whole area. People THINK there is just one forecast delivered by different people, just not true. Shop around. And forecasts (a) change (b) can be wrong. Anyone who does not know that is under age 8. There was no ice storm it was snow and ice pellets. I think people just don't understand words like AVERAGE (amount and location of snow), ESTIMATE (amount and time of most accumulation), AND ETA (estimated time of arrival). Grow up people, they can't come to your house or call you in person and hold your hand and explain what this means to and for you. Personal Responsibility applies to all. Perception can be a problem with a lack of sophistication but its the eye of the beholder not the message which was its gonna snow in Atlanta today. But people dont believe until they see it with their own eyes, by then it can be too late. That understandable human bias is not the fault of weather people. We complain they hype then complain when they don't. We beg for a snow day then when it happens we bitxx and moan and crap ourselves because mother nature doesn't do it on our terms. How childish. LIfe has surprises and hardships. Next time they snow and its sunny will we applaud and be glad or attack weather people for being wrong and closed schools for being wrong. We all know the answer.

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  7. Mr. Marsh's post is spot-on and anyone who doubts the NWS forecast should carefully read the "forecast discussions" starting MONDAY at 4:30am - a full day before the event unfolded. Specifically, NWS begins their discussion with:
    "...WINTER STORM WITH SIGNIFICANT IMPACTS REMAINS LIKELY..."
    and later writes: "SNOW/SLEET/FREEZING RAIN...NOW HAVE LIKELY TO CATEGORICAL SNOW ACROSS ENTIRE ATLANTA METRO".
    Forecast Deese, who authored this discussion, also writes: "PERSONALLY FAVOR PRECIP SPREADING FURTHER NORTH THAN MODELS PROJECT WHICH WOULD IN THIS CASE BRING WINTER HAZARDS NORTHWARD AS WELL." Again, this discussion was written on the MONDAY morning discussion released at 4:30!
    There is little ambiguity in this forecast and it’s a mystery why government officials were so lax in heeding a well-written warning in what should have been a slam-dunk decision.

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  8. On point 3, note that the two-day-out forecasts are often pretty good, certainly by the standards of decades ago, but shorter-term forecasts will always be more accurate.

    On point 4 I'm inclined to disagree. It seems, at least, as though you're suggesting that people just be given point estimates of the variables, with no appreciation of the extent to which forecasts are uncertain. If your argument is that this uncertainty isn't being presented in the most effective way for the consumers it's trying to reach, then I agree with that, but forecasts ought to evolve from "there could be snow" to "snow is likely" to "there's a good chance of significant snow" rather than trying to only say "there won't be snow" or "there will be exactly 2 inches of snow", especially two or three or four days out, when it's likely to change.

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  10. Because of the Weather Forecasts I was able to tell an employee in SMYRNA to stay home and tell all of my other team members that no one was permitted onsite after 12:00PM. My team was home by 1:00PM with their families (thankfully). Had it not been for the weather service I would have been screwed... PS.. I did all of this (research) via a weather channel app. Lord knows I would have done ever more had I been given information directly from the National Weather Service. We also dont watch the news. We relied 100% on information provided by weather channel-style apps. We ignore "cold warnings", but we certainly HONOR "snow warnings".... It is a shame that places will close "preemptively" over cold weather, but those same places are reluctant to do so over an actual SNOW warning...

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  11. The NWS did the best they could with all of the technology they have.

    The problem, as has been mentioned was the soft-reporting of it by WSB, WXIA, AJC, and the rest of the media.

    The general public does NOT read NWS forecasts. BUT they do listen to their radios in their cars. If statements like "[NWS forecasts] provided ample time for decisions to be made" are to be considered as fact (something not necessarily true as it is a subjective assessment to begin with), shouldn't we also be looking at what the TV and Radio talking heads were saying and assessing whether or not THEIR forecasts would have caused proper decisions based on what THEY said?

    Clearly the general public didn't make their decisions properly in the author's eye or more of them would have telecommuted. However. I contend that the general public DID make their decisions based on the information they had... from the pathetic interpretations of the local so-called meteorologists.

    I don't blame the NWS AT ALL as I said. I DO blame the pathetic interpretations of the NWS forecasts done by the media.

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    1. School superintendents (or someone with their ear) should definitely be looking at NWS forecasts. Local media should improve, but people deciding whether to put thousands of children on buses should not rely on them before they do.

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    2. I don't disagree with you at all dWj and I'm sure that will be taken into consideration going forward.

      The problem would have still been present however as school officials may have discounted what they were hearing from the NWS based on the cacophony of voices from local media that was downplaying the message from the NWS.

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  12. I clearly heard on Monday the words from Kurt Melish on WSB radio, "Models are changing almost hourly.....just a slight shift in the jet stream and all of the Metro area will be in a significant event. Stay tuned..."

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  13. BJVanGundy: right on. I don't read the NWS forecasts usually, I just don't come across them much. I think I'm with most folks here in the ATL area when I perceived, from local TV news media which I scan in the morning, that the storm with be south of Atlanta, with some dusting in the north metro area. No biggie. Perception is reality people. This was a FAILED forecast. The same forecasters scare the bejesus out of us every time there is a thunderstorm, talking about tornadoes. They can't call attention to something that was a likely event by the time most people are waking???? By 9 AM, everyone was at work and kids were gone to school. Meterologists are defending the Atlanta weather community. Love them as I do, they failed us.

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  14. And now the blame game begins. I wonder what forecasts those people were seeing:

    Most people were forecasting this to be a CRIPPLING storm 2-3 days before this hit. WxRisk did it better than all of them and were WAY more accurate, but even I could see New Orleans and Atlanta were going to be hit with ICE before it happened (and why I'm sure the NFL is very happy to have the Super Bowl in the New York metro area this year). Point being, THEY SCREWED UP and want to defer the blame off themselves.

    This type of poor planning torpedoed the political career of then-NYC Mayor John Lindsay in December 1969 when a storm caught NYC off guard. Michael Bloomberg and Chris Christie were similarly caught off guard in December 2010 in the New York area, however, that one can't entirely be blamed on them because that storm was forecast to be "maybe" 1-3" when decisions had to be made and only exploded Christmas Eve night and Christmas Day, when many decision makers had prior family commitments they could not get out of and because of it being Christmas did not necessarily have access to normal media because many outlets were shut down for the Christmas holiday, largely based on what was the forecast at the time the decision had to be made.

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    1. Abysmal responses to snow storms ended the careers of Denver Mayor Bill McNichols in 1983 and Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic in 1979.

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  15. I do read the NWS and have been for years and tell everyone tjat I cam to go there. The reason being is why wait for the news when I can get the info straight from where the news gets theirs. This is where all the warnings and alerts come from, why not just go there!! And that's exactly what I did starting on Monday through Tuesday. For that my family was prepared and at home safe after an outing to the dentist! Thanks Marshall...well said well said!!

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  16. I live in the Atlanta suburbs, and I am a very attentive consumer of news on television, radio and online. I heard what the various meteorologists and news anchors in the Atlanta media said in advance about the possibility of a weather event on Tuesday, January 28, 2014. I never heard one single, solitary media person say something to the effect of, "This could be a major weather event. Schools should consider closing, and commuters should consider staying home, or else they run the risk getting stranded and unable to return home when the snow begins mid-day." I believe that if any weather person had said something similar to this, it would have gotten a much different reaction by the school system administrators who make the decision whether to close schools. The fact that NONE of the metro Atlanta school systems elected to be closed on Tuesday is evidence that the advance communication by weather forecasters was not sufficiently clear about the possible severity of the storm, and about the potential of rendering streets impassable. J. Marsh can parse the exact words of the NWS releases on Monday and at 3:39 Tuesday morning all he wants, but the citizens and school officials served by the NWS and media meteorologists absolutely didn’t receive advance warning in plain language that schoolchildren and commuters should stay home. Once everyone went to work and school Tuesday morning, then the resulting gridlock and stranded motorists was inevitable. So, I disagree with the main thrust of this blog post, which seems to be that the public needs to develop better listening tools so they correctly will understand what the weather professionals are saying. Your post-event analysis is off base, Mr. Marsh. Going forward, if meteorologists really believe that the weather is going to be severe, then say so, clearly, and make sure the school systems and government officials know about it.

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    1. You know, I don't think anyone thought of an inch of snow as severe winter weather. It's not really. In light of what's been happening across the rest of the country, an inch is not an event. But we don't have a game plan to combat precipitation when it's cold. It could just as easily have been rain followed by a quick drop in temperate and we would have had the same problem. We need to be better prepared.

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    2. The blog post was good, but it looks like it omitted the following important part of the Winter Storm Warning issued for the greater Atlanta area by the NWS at 3:38 AM on Tue Jan 28 -

      "SIGNIFICANT AMOUNTS OF SNOW ARE FORECAST THAT WILL MAKE TRAVEL DANGEROUS. ONLY TRAVEL IN AN EMERGENCY. IF YOU MUST TRAVEL...KEEP AN EXTRA FLASHLIGHT...FOOD...AND WATER IN YOUR VEHICLE IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY." Very good advice, that went unheeded or unread by the media, emergency managers, politicians, etc.

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  17. I assumed the watch/warning difference was parallel to those terms as used with tornadoes. Watch as conditions are favorable for. Why define the terms differently for snow?

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  18. you guys we're on the ball. mayor Reed and governor Deal need to man up and just admit they dropped the ball on this one.

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  20. What was needed wasn't a better forecast; what was (and is) needed are public officials literate in science...and/or honest in their ignorance. What we have in this case (and in other states and much of congress) are people illiterate in the most basic essentials of science and technology. Instead of addressing the situation, instead of upgrading their knowledge, they pander to the elements having difficulty living in the 21st century...and use science and scientists as the scapegoat for that discomfort. Want to know why we're increasingly unable to compete in the world economy? It's because the people running too many states and much of Congress have made ignorance a virtue, corporate keister-kissers who court those who believe cavemen rode dinosaurs. We'll pay mightily as a nation; if not this decade, then in the decades of the future.

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  21. The "south" needs to take a little info from northern states that deal with this on a daily basis. The forecasting of any weather has gotten very accurate from what I'm seeing in the WI area. We can't handle the snow and cold as well as places in Canada, however, Wisconsinites have learned to handle things like black ice, drifting and bitter wind chills just by listening to these forecasts with a bit of common sense mixed in. Our plowing and salting crews are loaded and ready BEFORE the snow hits, Trucks are idling and "waiting" on road sides in anticipation of those first troublesome spots to appear. Sure you may not have the fleet of equipment to handle snow or ice, but the public can't expect to drive "the same as always" and road maintenance crews can't expect to chase the problems hours after they started and expect to solve them.

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  22. In Augusta, on the east side of Georgia, we saw winter storm watches begin on Sunday. Warnings began on Monday initially beginning at 11 a.m. on Tues through 9 a.m. on Wednesday. All of their predictions were right on also.

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  23. The forecast may have trended over time toward more precip in ATL, but when was the ONSET of the precip forecast to be? Noon is a much different story than 6pm. Curious.

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  24. The onset was correctly predicted as mid-morning, both in the Warning issued at 3 AM Tuesday, and the Advisory issued the night before.

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  25. Great blog post, J Marsh, and I agree that the Atlanta government failed give adequate warning to the citizens, businesses and schools this time.

    In addition to (your well-explained) weather warning levels, the Atlanta officials must also be extra cautious just based on the daily traffic/transportation gridlock in their city. Let's face it -- ignoring a winter storm watch for Waycross will not cause the same catastrophic results as not heeding one for Atlanta.

    Although the warning levels do not mean the same for me on the east coast of FL, here is what I do for hurricane warnings:

    Advisory: Reserve an inland hotel room(s)
    Watch: Confirm the inland hotel room
    Warning: Move family to hotel

    Even if the hurricane does not hit, a loss of $80 is a small price to pay for peace of mind.

    FWIW, I have relied on the NWS for updates, rather than my local government, for decades. I suggest EVERYONE in the nation do the same.

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  26. From your USFS collaborator GaryA. Could be both sides are correct. The NWS provided an accurate but not sufficient forecast. How did this storm differ from previous Atlanta snowstorms? When snows fall during the day, temperatures are usually upper 20's to low 30's and roads remain wet. Freezing of roads occurs after sundown. This storm started the same way with temps in upper 20's. BUT an arctic airmass was moving in so by late PM temperatures had already fallen into mid-20's on the way to lows in the low teens. So roads froze quickly during late PM at rush hour and earlier. As far as salt&sanders go, once the jam began the game was over. Question is, had Atlanta officials been warned that roads were going to freeze early, would they have done anything different?

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  27. You ever had one of those weather radios that starts sounding an alert whenever severe weather is approaching your area? I don't know if they've improved those things, but eventually you unplug that thing. Talk about crying wolf!

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