House Calls

Triumph and tragedy: the flooding in the southern U.S.

Rainfall totals image

This two week rainfall total from Texas and Oklahoma shows the extent of heavy rainfall, and why the flooding is so bad in this portion of the country. Data through 8 PM CDT May 28, 2015. Image courtesy of the National Weather Service.

In May of 2015, the southern Plains, and especially in the states of Texas and Oklahoma, heavy rainfall caused major flash flooding in a significant portion of the region. In those two states alone, 17 people have died as of May 28.

Don’t get me wrong: those are 17 people whose lives touched others. They were loved; they had family and/or friends who cared for them deeply, and now they are gone. It is a tragedy, make no mistake about it, that will leave those they left behind grieving for years to come. That’s the tragedy that we should mourn.

The triumph? Thanks to the data, and alerting and display systems we have in this country…it could have been worse….way worse. Similar flooding events of this magnitude kills thousands of people in one fell swoop in countries without adequate warning systems. That’s the triumph.

And yet, a further tragedy is that many of these deaths still could have been prevented. Some refused to evacuate in time. Many took their cars—at least one driving around a barricade—and drove right into the floodwaters. One person was canoeing when a dam was opened to release water, and the person couldn’t apparently get back to shore in time as the rush of water hit.

And, equally as disturbing are the scenes from Austin and Houston, TX, of literally hundreds of cars, now ruined, sitting in flood waters that went over the hoods of their cars on interstates. And that is tragic because, although the people in those vehicles survived…they now face a huge financial burden. Some cars aren’t insured, and others…the insurance company will only pay book value for. Not to mention the lost money from not being able to get to work, the stress, and other life factors on top of all of that.

The National Weather Service has an excellent campaign called “Turn Around, Don’t Drown(tm)”. That’s great advice, to be sure, but I think it’s time to take it to the next level. That advice, taken to it’s fullest extent, would have prevented much of the tremendous vehicle loss and most of the lives lost in the flooding across the region. But how about this: “Flash flooding? Stay home, unless you are in danger!”. Mind you, I’m not a marketing major, and this slogan won’t catch the world on fire (maybe readers better at this than myself can help me out here?). But it would have stopped the senseless driving of vehicles into flood water. “But I have to get to work!”. Some of you really do, and that’s when you don’t drive around barricades. But if you don’t, work from home that day. But if you HAVE to drive and you see ponded or rushing water on the road ahead, STOP. Don’t even try it. For most people, a day’s loss of income is better than a month…or a year’s loss of income because your vehicle is now a paperweight! Think about it. Otherwise, all the warnings in the world won’t help you if you don’t act on them. Your AllisonHouse Maps display shows you’re in a flash flood warning, but if you ignore it, it doesn’t do either of us any good.

So let’s take this to the next level: no more deaths, no more flooding of cars by driving into water because you had to be somewhere. If you are on high ground, stay there. If not, then evacuate, but do so very carefully so you don’t become a victim. We don’t need any more unnecessary damage and fatalities. And if there’s some way we can help you be more alert and tuned in to the dangers of severe weather, please let us know privately or in the comments section!

You never think it’s going to be you…until it’s you

Roughly two minutes after the tornado had passed, stunned victims overlook the far east side of Fairdale, IL.

Roughly two minutes after the tornado had passed, stunned victims look over the east side of Fairdale, IL.

One of the things that makes an Emergency Manager or a meteorologist want to bang their heads against a wall about is one phrase, explicitly said or implicit in one’s behavior:

“It can’t happen to me”.

I work behind the scenes on nights and weekends here at AllisonHouse, grabbing new data sources, and making sure the ones we have now are stable. But here’s a confession, which my boss Tyler probably could easily have guessed, but here’s a public confession:

With only a few brief exceptions until April 18, I haven’t been on duty at AllisonHouse. Why? Am I a lazy slacker? Hardly.

9 days ago, I watched people die in front of me. I didn’t see people die, but I had a very strong hunch at least one did. Based on the tornado I saw…it left me with little doubt.

At my main job at a major University, I was protecting them from a large, violent tornado. None had happened since 1990…and the prevailing attitude around here to a large extent was…it won’t happen again. August 28, 1990…that was a fluke. Even among some emergency folks, it was almost unthinkable that something so bad could happen here, or nearby.

But April 9, 2015 changed all of it, in an hour of rampage.

That’s when a supercell thunderstorm formed late in the afternoon near Annawan, in north-central Illinois. Moving northeast, it followed a warm front, but one that was reinforced by a previous supercell north of it that caused even more wind shear along the front. And then the sun came out, making the atmosphere more unstable. For me, it was like April 20, 2014, when a strong tornado hit Utica, IL, as the storm “rode” along a warm front. It was deja vu all over again.

I notified my employer of the tornado developing over Franklin Grove, and then took off from my house. 20 miles away, just after I left my subdivision, I could see it. I get on the phone with my employer, and I notified them about the tornado. I notified my city. Then, I blasted west, going behind hills and dips until finally, west of Malta, IL, I could see it 7 miles away to my west-northwest. It was big. One of the biggest I had ever seen…now nearly a half-mile wide, and growing.

It had just hit Kings, IL, and a restaurant called “Grubsteakers” at the northeast corner of state route 64 and U.S. Route 251. And now, it was making a beeline for either Kirkland, or Fairdale. At first, it looked like Kirkland would take a direct hit. But as I headed north to Esmond Road, and got north of Esmond, I watched Fairdale largely disappear in front of me, with some of the fastest, most violent rotation I had ever seen in 26 years of storm chasing.

I reached Fairdale less than 2 minutes after it hit. The scene was shocking to me, even though I have seen towns devastated by tornadoes before. The overwhelming smell of broken pine and other trees, mixed in with a little propane or natural gas odor, is one that is repeated in every town just hit by a tornado. I hate that smell. I hate it even more today.

I blocked off the road as aloof travelers were trying to get through. I called 911, offered to help those who were emerging from a collapsed shed, and then called my city to let them know what happened. A few minutes later, as EMS personnel began to arrive, I let them do their work. As volunteer fire crews were arriving in Kirkland, I let them know Fairdale was mostly gone.

I now know that one of the fatalities and several of the 22 injured were preventable: they ignored the warnings they received, or didn’t act on them properly.

A week later, after working late into the night every night, answering phone calls, emails, media interests…it struck me again. You can have GRLevel2, 3, Analyst, Earth, RadarScope, PYKL3, and AllisonHouse Maps…or other products we produce or serve…and ignore the warning. Or, you see it, you call friends and family, and they blow you off. Can I give you a little advice?

Take care of that issue RIGHT NOW.

Use our products to help you understand what’s going on, to pass to your family. Your friends. Your neighbors. Your city. And make sure YOU understand it. Because when it comes to weather, the atmosphere could care less about you. It just needs to equalize the imbalances in the atmosphere. When that happens over you or those you care for, be ready.

Because you never think it’s going to happen to be you…until it’s you.

My prayers continue to go out to the injured and the other victims of this terrible day in northern Illinois.

The danger of meteorological cancer, and the wonder of meteorological diagnosis

An accurate weather forecast begins with an accurate analysis and diagnosis. A simple surface plot with satellite and radar overlaid, here using AllisonHouse Maps, reveals critical weather features to help you make an accurate forecast.

An accurate weather forecast begins with an accurate weather analysis and diagnosis. A simple surface plot with satellite overlaid, here using AllisonHouse Maps, reveals critical weather features to help you make an accurate forecast.

At AllisonHouse, we have a wide variety of customers with varying degrees of knowledge about the weather. Some are degreed meteorologists. Some are storm chasers. The most enthusiastic of our customers tend to be the latter and both! And all have seen an amazing transformation in our industry over the last few decades.

The technology revolution has spilled over into revolutionizing weather data and how it is displayed and analyzed. In the late 1980s, there were few ways, for example, to see a surface map or radar: on broadcast TV, during newscasts, and that was about it. Unless…if you were really fortunate…working in a National Weather Service office, a University with a weather or research program, or a private weather company. Growing up as a kid, I remember one television station in Chicago that had a live color radar display of our local Marseilles, IL WSR-57 radar. Just to see the “base reflectivity” product at 4 zoom levels of the company choice cost the station $20,000 per month! And people saw those images for less than 2 minutes in a 24 hour news cycle…and only when there was “good stuff” happening! Every bit of data was cherished. Model data was the LFM, the NGM, and, toward the end of my college tenure, something excited called the “ETA” was coming that would blow both models out of the water. And those models were seen only on paper printouts, quite a while after they had been run! When the “Aviation” model came out, you didn’t see the morning run until about 3 PM Central time!

So now, we fast forward to 2015. Computing power has increased light years over the past several decades. There’s a TON more data and model output available. Unfortunately, a disturbing trend as part of the revolution of data and models in meteorology has professors and us older meteorologists very concerned. And, it’s been coined by a very dark term: “meteorological cancer”.

That’s a rather blunt and nasty phrase, isn’t it? Cancer, in the human body, is horrible. It destroys cells, and can leave the patient suffering terribly, or dying a slow death. But the reason why it’s called this awful name is that we can see something horrible coming, and in some cases, already here: meteorologists and forecasters who rely on model data and only cursory analysis of weather data, which leads them to make bad analyses and forecasts. In the long run, they will face the death of their careers, and I believe, without exaggeration, an industry. And, for storm chasers, it can mean that you miss out on a historical event because X model said this…and a simple analysis of current weather data, even by a non-meteorologist, would reveal that the model was going to be wrong. Even emergency managers can easily be misled by pretty looking images on their computer monitors.

Let me be clear: I’m not model-bashing here. In fact, quite the opposite: if we, as meteorologists are not cconssistently better than the models, which are now shockingly good and getting better all the time, we’re in big trouble, without exaggeration. As storm chasers or weather spotters, burying our heads in a model display very frequently instead of looking out the window or at a surface map makes us miss very vital clues as to what the atmosphere or a thunderstorm is doing, or about to do. And, as a member of the general public or an emergency manager, failure to receive emergency or urgent weather information and be able to understand what it means can cause substantial and unnecessary worsening of life and death situations.

Here at AllisonHouse, we provide the data and tools you need to diagnose and forecast the weather, and to keep you on top of dangerous weather situations. Make no mistake about it: we think we do the best at providing you with the best diagnostic and forecasting tools through AllisonHouse Maps, GRLevelx and our other partner products at a great price. But let me be blunt: it does us, and you, no good if you can’t understand what you are looking at. And, if you just mostly look at the models to tell you what may happen, you WILL succumb to meteorological cancer, relying on output on a screen instead of *complementing and enhancing* what you are seeing out your window, and in the atmosphere RIGHT NOW. That’s the key: understand the reality first, then use models as guidance to forecast beyond what the data tells you. You can become a good weather analyst and forecaster without being a meteorologist, though the latter, when done right, will consistently be able to do both better due to better training and education. Even so, you, as our AllisonHouse customers, should strive to be the best weather *analysts* you can be, so that you can become good short-term forecasters. How do you do that? Here are some suggestions:

1. Display what’s going on NOW before looking at ANY models. If you don’t understand what an 850 MB, 700, 500 or 250 MB map is, don’t worry yet. Get the SURFACE right first. Start simple: on AllisonHouse Maps, for example, bring up surface observations, and overlay them with satellite and radar. This lets you see the big picture, which, in turn, will help you to better understand what is happening on a smaller, and more local, scale. Sometimes, weather instruments are are broken, or out of error tolerance or needing calibration. Does a southeast wind at one location mean a significant meteorological boundary is there if all other winds nearby are from the northwest, or is the instrument broken? If you keep doing good analyses, you’ll figure that out quickly, even as a novice. At smaller airports, weather stations have somewhat lower instrument accuracy thresholds than at major airports, and they tend to get somewhat less maintenance annually than the ones at larger airports. But even the weather stations at big airports can sometimes go bad. Anything that looks out of the ordinary should be questioned in your mind.

2. Diagnose what’s going on before looking at ANY models. Models *generally* won’t (not yet, at least) pick up on outflow boundaries from thunderstorms, or other small-scale features. Understanding that these boundaries are there, and where they came from, will help you understand how it will affect the atmosphere in the hours ahead, even without looking at the models.

3. Look at the models with an eye to reality. If they start out bad, they might get a forecast right, but for all the wrong reasons. Models are guidance, and not truth; models are fantasy, not reality; models do an amazingly good AND bad job at forecasting the weather. The more complex or dangerous a situation, the more likely it is to be wrong. By knowing what is going on now, you can see many model errors that occur with each model, in each run, and more or less account for that. Or, throw the model out altogether as being flat wrong.

4. Keep analyzing what is going on with real-time data throughout the day. The atmosphere is always changing; it is never constant. Is your forecast going as expected? If not, why not? It means something is changing now that will be affecting what will happen shortly. And if you see something now that you didn’t before, does that mean you need to change your ideas as to what may happen in the future? Above all: don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong. The faster you do, the better it will be for you and everyone else. The best forecasters, analysts and meteorologists sometimes aren’t the ones who get forecasts mostly right. The best are the ones who learn from what they are doing wrong, or diagnosed incorrectly, and make corrections as needed promptly. Then, and only then, they look at the models and see if they support their thinking.

By doing these things, you won’t drool at the supercell with the big hook echo on the HRRR 6 hour model forecast. You’ll have done that earlier in your analysis, making a good diagnosis, prognosticate the short-term conditions based off that, and realize that supercells in the area are expected, and the HRRR or other models are merely confirming it. Otherwise, you’re getting meteorological cancer, which is deadly to the career of a meteorologist, and to the industry. And as a chaser, emergency manager or forecaster, you’ll miss great storms or opportunities to serve your community most effectively. Always remember: data, and an excellent analysis/diagnosis of the weather are your best friends. That’s one reason why, at AllisonHouse, we emphasize data in all our product offerings…which ultimately helps you make an accurate analysis and short-term prognosis. And that makes you a good forecaster, or an emergency manager well-equipped to understand the impacts of what you are seeing. Because if you live by the models…you will die by the models. Stomp out meteorological cancer!