Mike Smith tips us to this NOAA Communications Office Summary of stories about the February blizzard. It makes for interesting reading.
As Record Snow Falls, NWS Employees Hunker Down
An Epic Storm: Tulsa, Okla.
Chuck Hodges and Bruce Sherbon, forecasters at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Tulsa, Okla., planned to arrive early for their scheduled shifts on Tuesday, February 1—six to eight hours early. Anticipating what would be a winter storm of epic proportions, the intrepid forecasters knew they would be in for the long haul and decided to get to the office ahead of the storm and spend the night there before starting what would be a marathon session of double-shifts, few breaks, and lots of snow.
Sherbon, who had planned to get some sleep at home before going into the office, was awoken by thunder that accompanied the powerful snowstorm around 11:30 on Monday night. “I knew at that time it was pretty much ‘go time,'” he said. “We had two or three inches of sleet on the ground at my house already and the roads were deteriorating rapidly.”
After he arrived at the office and had a chance to look things over and watch the weather for a while, Sherbon “sacked out on the couch for a few hours.” Around 5 a.m. he got up and started issuing Local Storm Reports—160 of them in all. “That didn’t stop for 17 hours straight,” he said with a chuckle. Breaks were minimal. “I would get up and get a Coke and get up and go to the bathroom, but that’s it,” he said. He did admit, though, that he found time to warm up and eat some of the extra food he brought in to sustain himself, including his favorite brand of microwave pizza.
Likewise, Hodges realized the day before that he needed to prepare early if he was going to make it in to work for his shift. “It became pretty obvious Monday afternoon that I wouldn’t make it into work Tuesday morning for that 6:00 a.m. shift unless I just decided to come on in,” he said. “I brought a sleeping bag, brought my pillow, brought a change of clothes, definitely brought a toothbrush—stuff like that—brought a little bit of food.”
Although he arrived at the office around 10:00 p.m., he also found himself awoken by the same claps of thunder that stirred Sherbon from his slumber at home around midnight. “I can’t say I really slept all that well,” Hodges said. “I found myself the rest of the night probably waking up about every hour and checking out the window.”
After waking up around 5:00-5:30 a.m., Hodges began his shift at 6:00 and worked straight through until 10:00 p.m. At that point, he was able to get some sleep until around 2:00 a.m., finding refuge in an office chair. “The floor wasn’t treating me all that well.” When he awoke, he assisted in the operations area some more before helping shovel out cars with a colleague and making a path to the main road. Finally able to leave around 7:00-8:00 Wednesday morning, Hodges went home and “straight to bed,” having spent nearly 36 hours at the forecast office.
Although it was not a real-time significant event, hydrologically-speaking, the Tulsa Weather Forecast Office was assisted by the staff of the collocated NWS Arkansas Red-Basin River Forecast Center, where Bill Lawrence, acting hydrologist-in-charge, was also prepared. “I came Monday night with suitcase in hand, expecting to spend several nights here,” he said.” “The forecasts verified, and the storm was really bad. There was no way my car would be getting out of the parking lot Tuesday or even Wednesday for that matter.” Lawrence, who lives in a rural area 30 miles from the office, said he was humbled by the numerous offers from coworkers to take a shower and sleep at their homes nearby. “Their kindness has been much appreciated!”
Deodorant is Important: Kansas City, Mo.
As the storm moved up through the central Plains, dumping more than 20 inches of snow over parts of Missouri, Audra Hennecke, a meteorologist intern with the NWS Kansas City Weather Forecast Office, in Pleasant Hill, Mo., also knew that spending the night at the office was a distinct possibility. “I knew that when I’d be walking in the door,” she said of her scheduled 10:00 a.m. shift, “it would be a question mark of how long I was needed.” She ended up staying at the office for nearly 24 hours.
Like her colleagues in Tulsa, Hennecke came to work prepared. “I brought an air mattress, blanket, and pillow. I brought tons of extra food, not knowing how many meals I may have to have, an extra set of clothes, basic cosmetics, a toothbrush, toothpaste, things like that, contacts, glasses—just anything [I might need] not knowing when I would be able to leave the office. Your basic essentials.”
This was not, however, your basic overnight stay away from home. As well-equipped as a weather forecast office is, it’s no five-star hotel. There are no beds to sleep on, there’s little space at all for sleeping, no room service and no showers. “Needless to say, deodorant is important, of course,” Hennecke joked. “You make it work. You do what you got to do.”
As far as privacy, Hennecke was lucky. “I slept in my boss’s office,” she said, noting that she restlessly slept for about five hours.
Andy Bailey, warning coordination meteorologist at the Kansas City Weather Forecast Office said of Hennecke, “In classic NWS style, she worked this shift with a smile on her face the entire time.” Bailey said that Hennecke was one of “many examples of dedicated employees, leaving their family at home to deal with the storm while they came in to meet their mission. Despite I-70 being closed from Kansas City to St. Louis for the first time in history, every one of our available operational people reported for their shift on time, and was prepared to stay the night.”
Forecaster Derek Deroche of the Kansas City Weather Forecast Office was prepared to do whatever it took to make it in for his scheduled shift Tuesday evening, despite having been snowed in at home. “It would have been easy and understandable for him to call the office and say he couldn’t come in due to being snowed in,” Bailey said. “Instead of taking the easy way out, after digging out his driveway, he actually dug out his street, by hand, so he could reach a…better maintained road. Have you ever heard of anyone digging their street out, with a shovel, so they could get to work in the middle of a blizzard? I haven’t, but these are the kinds of people we have in this agency.”
Kansas City is also home to the NWS Central Region Headquarters and the NWS Aviation Weather Center, both of which arranged for accommodations for essential employees who provided support during the storm. Steve Berry, an IT specialist at Central Region Headquarters, stayed in a hotel near the office in order to provide support for national NWS Web servers, which experienced unprecedented demands for Internet services because of the widespread nature of the storm. During the storm’s peak, NWS Web servers were getting as many as 15-20 million hits an hour. Aviation Weather Center employees also checked into a hotel adjacent to the facility before snow started falling, as the center had to maintain round the clock operations to meet its hemispheric and global aviation weather responsibilities.
A Team Effort: Chicago and Lincoln, Ill.
In Chicago, where the event ranked as the third largest snowstorm in the city’s history (and the biggest ever in February), the strongest impacts were felt late Tuesday, February 1, into Wednesday, February 2, with snowfall totals of nearly two feet north of the city and wind gusts of 70 mph at Chicago’s Lakefront.
As early as Monday both the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois had issued declarations and proclamations in anticipation of the event, and took hundreds of actions in preparations for the storm, all based on the blizzard predictions provided by NWS meteorologists. Street and transportation departments readied extra snow clearing equipment and road salt, school districts sent letters to parents providing information on what to expect, warning shelters and homeless shelters were opened or implemented expanded capacity and hours. Equipment such as snowmobiles were brought in to aid in rescuing stranded motorists, and city, county and state emergency managers kept businesses, schools districts and others informed of weather predictions by relaying NWS decision support briefing information and incorporating NWS statements and weather story graphics into their information dissemination systems.
“Our forecast success was a true team effort,” said Ed Fenelon, meteorologist-in-charge of the NWS Chicago Weather Forecast Office, located in nearby Romeoville, Ill. “People gave up days off, came in early, and stayed late Sunday and Monday in order to pore through the model data diagnosing the situation and to respond to scores of media inquiries questioning ‘would it really be that bad?'” Like most of those who had to make personal sacrifices to keep the forecasts flowing to the public, Fenelon said he and his staff made the most of the situation. “On the up side, those who spent the night at the office enjoyed the 30 foot commute to work the next day.”
At the neighboring NWS Weather Forecast Office in Lincoln, Ill., lead forecaster Dan Smith was scheduled to work an evening shift on Tuesday, from 4:00 p.m. to midnight, but ended up working an extra six hours until 6:00 a.m. Wednesday, at which point he found a quiet place in the office to rest, since the conditions had deteriorated to the point were he would have been unable to get home. Despite the fact that his wife remained snowed in at home with the risk of losing power, Smith said he remained focused on the mission, although he admitted “that was something that was in the back of my wind while working the shift.”
One of the things Smith helped with during the height of the storm was the release of the weather balloons and attached radiosonde instrument packages, which take place every 12 hours, at noon and midnight, Zulu, or Greenwich Mean Time, usually referred to as “0Z” and “12Z.”
“The 0Z launch was kind of a tough one, because of the wind,” he said. “It barely got off the ground, but the radiosonde itself hit the ground and we lost the battery.” Smith consulted with his colleagues and, after realizing they would otherwise miss valuable data at the height of the storm, they decided to make another attempt at a launch, which was successful. “It’s usually a one-person procedure with the flight, but sometimes we needed two or three people to do this,” Smith said.
Don’t Give Birth During the Storm: Milwaukee, Wis.
About 90 miles northwest of Chicago at the NWS Milwaukee, Wis., Weather Forecast Office, General Forecaster Marcia Cronce, Lead Forecaster Steve Hentz and Meteorologist Intern Ashley Sears were all part of what Meteorologist-In-Charge Steve Brueske referred to as the “extended-stay-ride-out-the-storm crew.”
Sears, who arrived at 5:15 on Tuesday evening, was scheduled to work from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., but ended up working until 8:00 the next morning. One of her duties during that time was to go outside and take snow observations. She compared the experience at the height of the storm, with winds gusting at nearly 50 mph, to that of being in Hurricane Ike in Houston in 2008. “When I went to take the ob[servation] I couldn’t even walk into the wind. I had to turn around and walk backwards, because it stung so much.”
Hentz, who brought not only a sleeping bag, but an air mattress to the office, worked a 4:00 p.m. to midnight shift before retiring to a private office to try and get some sleep. “Initially it was not a really good sleep, so I kind of woke up a few times.” After he got up around 4:00 a.m., Hentz went back to the operations area to assist with issuing additional products. “After that I actually slept fairly well and one of the 8:00 people did make it in, so they basically let me sleep and I didn’t wake up until 9:30 in the morning.”
While Sears and Hentz were busy balancing their own duties with their personal requirements for sleep and food, they were also aware that their colleague, Cronce, had one more thing to be concerned about: she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant.
“We were all joking that she was going to give birth during the storm,” said Sears.
For her part, Cronce took the situation in stride. “People were saying, ‘Now, Marcia, don’t go into labor. There’s a big low pressure system coming through, you know.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,’ because that would be worst-case scenario: going into labor during a blizzard.”
When it came time for her six hours of sleep, Cronce made sure she was one of the people in her office who got to sleep on a cot. “I slept in the boss’s office, so I was away from things. It was quiet,” she said. “The cot was actually quite comfortable. We had some extra foam padding and a comforter on there and I had brought my pillow and blanket, so I was remarkably comfortable. I was surprised!”
Overall Cronce wasn’t too bothered by the experience. “It was just like staying up later at night than you normally would and just not feeling totally fresh in the morning,” she said. “As long my teeth were brushed I felt better—put a little water in my hair. It was OK.”
Cronce also won favor among her colleagues by having brought in two frozen pizzas, among other extra food, which she shared with others. “Pizzas are always a treat,” she said. “We don’t get delivery out here, because our office is very remote. So I had been to the grocery store that day and picked up extra pizza and I was hungry for pizza, so I ate some and then shared the rest.
Her colleagues seemed to appreciate it. “We can’t even get people to deliver here in perfect conditions,” Sears mentioned.
The Ice Cometh: Indianapolis and New York City
As the storm made its way eastward, as many as nine people spent a night or two at the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Indianapolis, where the main threat from the storm was ice. In the days leading up to the event, forecasters Joseph Nield and Crystal Pettet worked on the local forecast grids as part of the National Digital Forecast Database and noted the severity of the system, prompting Nield to refer to the storm in Area Forecast Discussions issued on January 31 as “potentially catastrophic,” a term that would be repeated throughout the local media.
As freezing rain and sleet and wind gusts of 40 mph began lashing the NWS forecast office in Indianapolis, the decision was made to go to generator power in case the commercial power was lost. About a half-hour later, however, employees began to notice problems with the generator. At the same time, power flashes lit up the sky as power lines arced in the wind and transformers were blowing. Electronic Technicians Dave Johnson and Christopher Denman went to work examining the flow line from the main tank into the day tank and noticed that water was freezing in the PVC valve, preventing the flow of diesel fuel into the day tank to be used by the generator. After thawing water in the valve and re-sealing the line, the office returned to generator power, which remained operational until commercial power was restored the next morning.
Ice was also a concern further east in New York City, where John Koch, deputy chief of the Meteorological Services Division for the NWS Eastern Region, deployed to the city’s Office of Emergency Management in order to make sure there was no delay between forecasters making decisions and conveying that information to emergency managers. “Decision Support is a fairly new term within the Weather Service, but the actions that it describes have been going on for decades,” said Koch, who arrived just before noon on February 1 and stayed at the Emergency Operations Center until about 1:30 a.m. on February 2. “We’ve always been there for our primary partners and customers and it’s about providing expert consultation to ensure that they have the most accurate weather information to make those critical decisions that they have to make.”
Working with Partners Across Industry
The forecasters, hydrologists, electronics technicians and others who work at the National Weather Service are part of a nationwide workforce nearly 5,000-strong who, along with thousands of meteorologists from private industry, broadcasting, and the academic and research communities, are part of what’s known as America’s Weather Enterprise.
Throughout the event, NWS employees and their counterparts in the private sector were in lock-step with one another.
“In a lot of ways we complement each other,” said Mike Smith, CEO of WeatherData, Inc., part of AccuWeather, and author of the book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. “By individual businesses calling WeatherData and getting their products tailored exactly to their needs by WeatherData, that allows the Weather Service to focus on the needs of the public at large and the needs of governmental officials in making the critical decisions they need to make for the public.”
Smith said that just as NWS couldn’t provide custom-tailored forecasts to individuals and businesses the way forecasting companies in the private sector can, the private sector companies couldn’t do their jobs effectively without the data and information provided by NWS. “We readily acknowledge that the infrastructure that’s provided by the National Weather Service—the radars, the satellites, the weather observations, the computer models—are essential for us to do our work,” he said. “The more we work together, the more we can grow America’s businesses and the more we can grow America’s economy and the more lives we can save.”
The nature of this storm demanded particular attention to putting it in proper historic context, and Paul Gross, broadcast meteorologist and executive producer of weather at WDIV-TV in Detroit, benefited greatly from his relationship with his local NWS office.
“Having worked here for my entire twenty-eight year career, I have developed close friendships and working relationships with many of the meteorologists at the Detroit-Pontiac NWS office,” Gross said. “One in particular, Bill Deedler [observation program leader at the NWS Detroit Weather Forecast Office], shares my passion for historical perspective. I gave Bill a call on my way to work the day the storm was to hit, and we chatted for a good twenty minutes, comparing stories about past storms, and trying to get a sense of where this one would stack up. Having this perspective helped me greatly as I prepared for many consecutive hours of live reporting out in the storm.”
They’d Do it All Again
The ability of the National Weather Service—as well as its partners in government and private industry—to ensure society stays ahead of the storm as well as it did during this event is a testament to not only the resilience and partnerships of America’s Weather Enterprise, but to the dedication and perseverance of the individuals who are a part of it.
“Everything that got accomplished that day was because we all worked really well as a team,” said Hennecke, who, along with every one of her colleagues who were interviewed for this story, said they would do it again if faced with the opportunity. “It’s part of the job and you know that going into an event,” Hennecke said. “Part of my philosophy was I’d really like to get home in one piece, so if that means working extra hours and staying at the office, then it’s totally worth it.
“Absolutely,” exclaimed Hodges. “It was tiring, but I had a blast.”
“I think it’s maybe a can-do personality type of thing,” added Cronce.
WeatherData’s Smith compared the willingness of forecasters to work long hours and go to extreme lengths to get to work—sometimes putting their own personal safety at risk—to that of a first-responder. “There’s no doubt that people being out in that storm were putting their personal safety in at least some jeopardy, but they did it because they know they have a duty,” he said. “Just like a fireman goes toward a burning building when there’s a fire and everyone else runs away, the meteorologists have to go into their office where there’s a major winter storm, because we know lives are at stake.”
NWS Deputy Director Laura Furgione, whose experience as a field forecaster is legend, said, “I’m never surprised to hear stories about our people going to extreme lengths to get to the office and do their job, but I am always amazed. You can’t help but love the men and women of the National Weather Service!”
The protection of life and property is part of the mission of the National Weather Service and it’s one that its employees, from meteorologist interns and Administrative Support Assistants to electronic technicians and forecasters to meteorologists and hydrologists-in-charge take very seriously.
“We’re dedicated to getting the information out to the public, because that’s who we’re serving,” said Smith of the NWS Lincoln, Ill., Weather Forecast Office. “Whatever it takes to get the job done and the information out to the public, we’re certainly willing to do it and I think everybody here has got that same motto: I think it’s whatever it takes, we’ll get it done.”
|Forecaster Chuck Hodges of the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Tulsa, Okla., began his shift at 6:00 a.m. and worked straight through until 10:00 p.m. on February 1, 2011, during the epic witner storm that set a new snowfall record for Tulsa. (Photo: Steve Piltz)||A view outside the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Tulsa, Okla. during the height of the storm, just before sunrise on February 1, 2011. (Photo: Steve Piltz)||A view outside the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Tulsa, Okla. during the height of the storm. The snowplow in the background got stuck on a highway on ramp. (Photo: Steve Piltz)|
|Temporary sleeping quarters of Bill Lawrence, acting hydrologist-in-charge of the NWS Arkansas Red-Basin River Forecast Center in Tulsa, Okla. (Photo: Steve Piltz)||Meteorologist Intern Dave Janowski of the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Tulsa, Okla., ventured outside every hour to take snowfall measurements. Seen here, he is taking the 1:00 p.m. measurement on February 1, 2011, that set a new snowfall record for Tulsa. (Photo: Steve Piltz)||Meteorologist Intern Dave Janowski of the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Tulsa, Okla., ventured outside every hour to take snowfall measurements. (Photo: Bruce Sherbon)|
|Meteorologist Intern Dave Janowski of the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Tulsa, Okla., ventured outside every hour to take snowfall measurements. (Photo: Bruce Sherbon)||GOES-East visible satellite image of winter storm, taken at 2115Z (4:15 p.m. EST) on February 1, 2011. (Courtesy: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory | High Resolution Version)||GOES-East colorized infrared image of witner storm, taken at 2115Z (4:15 p.m. EST) on February 1, 2011.|