The killer freeze of this week in the U.S. was no surprise.
Government and private meteorologists, some almost three weeks in advance, saw it coming. They began sounding alarms two weeks in advance. They’ve spoken to leaders. Via social media, they gave blunt alerts.
And still, a tragedy occurred. At least 20 people have died and 4 million households have lost electricity, heat or water at some point.
Meteorologists had all kinds of sciences down right: the prediction math-oriented atmospheric physics and the squishy social sciences about how to get their message across, experts said.
“Due to human and infrastructure fragility, a lack of planning for the worst-case scenario and the enormity of the extreme weather, this became a disaster,” said disaster science professor Jeannette Sutton of Albany University in New York.
The incident illustrates how unprepared the nation and its infrastructure are for extreme weather events, meteorologists and disaster experts said, which would become more troublesome with climate change.
According to a preliminary estimate from the risk-modeling company Karen Clark & Company, insured losses are potentially $18 billion for the nearly week-long severe freeze beginning Valentine’s Day weekend, just a fraction of the actual costs.
Kim Klockow-McClain leads the behavioural analytics unit of the National Weather Service, which works on how to make forecasts and alerts easier for individuals to understand and act on.
People have heard the message and have issued warnings, she said. They were unprepared for different reasons, Klockow-McClain said, believing cold is not a big deal, not having encountered this sort of extreme cold, and concentrating more on snow and ice than the temperature.
“Meteorology was the easiest part of this, by far,” said Klockow-McClain.
Judah Cohen of Atmospheric and Environmental Science, a private winter storm specialist, first blogged about the danger on Jan. 25. He said the meteorological signal from the Arctic, from which the cold air fled, “was blinking red literally.” It was the best one I’d ever seen.
At the University of Oklahoma, meteorology professor Kevin Kloesel, who is also the emergency manager of the school, sent out an alert on Jan. 31 warning of “sub-freezing temperatures and the possibility of sub-zero wind chills.” He sent several alerts a day on Feb. 7, about a week before the worst of the freeze began.
Jason Furtado, professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, tweeted on Feb. 5 about the cold “off the chart.”
Around two weeks in advance, the weather service began talking about the freeze and gave “the most precise forecast we can make along with consistent messaging,” said John Murphy, chief operating officer of the department. “The magnitude and severity of the event is one that was not fully prepared for by some people.”
Professor of meteorology at Texas A&M University Don Conlee said that private and public forecasting was’ probably the best I’ve seen in my meteorological career.’
So why did it appear unprepared for so many entities?
The Texas power grid, which is overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, was one of the key issues.
Sutton said that part of the infrastructure was “an enormous failure.”
“Institutional memory appears to be less than 10 years because in 2011 this occurred and there was a comprehensive set of recommendations on how to prevent this in the future,” Kloesel said in an email.
The chief executive officer of the grid operator, Bill Magness, told reporters Thursday that the agency planned on the basis of previous cold outbreaks and “this one changes the game because it was so much bigger, so much more severe, and we saw the effect it had.”
It was not prepared for “is not a great way to plan,” Sutton said, “especially if we are supposed to learn from our failures,” essentially saying that it was too high.
Another potential problem is that warning meteorologists were not acquainted with the fragility of the Texas grid, so they were unable to emphasise power more in their forecasts, Klockow-McClain said.
This was also so rare that, Sutton said, ordinary individuals had no idea how to handle it. It was simply not something they had ever encountered.
Even though this was different and serious, people often assume that they know cold, so people probably assessed the forecasts based on far milder chills, Klockow-McClain said.
The forecast also included snow and ice that, Klockow-McClain said, possibly drew more interest from people than the temperature drop.
“We, human beings, live our lives as if we are not at risk,” said Sutton. “We come up with all sorts of justifications for ‘we’re going to be all right.'”