Overreacting to Weather

When I was in high school, our school system (in Bedford County, VA) once closed down for two or three weeks because of the weather—a few consecutive snow storms of a few inches each. I wrote about it at the time in the Liberty High School Sentinel newspaper, pointing out that it was a bit silly to close the schools for a couple inches of snow, especially for so many days. During those two or three weeks off school, the roads were clear enough that I spent most of those days visiting friends, going to movies, and so on. If I could drive safety to the towns of Altavista, Virginia, and Lynchburg, Virginia, (each 30 minutes away from Bedford), I’m sure I could have made it the half-mile up the road to the high school.

The lunacy hasn’t stopped there. In my current home of Northern Virginia, it’s not uncommon for a summer thunderstorm or a couple rainy days in a row to result in widespread road closures, drastically worsened commutes, power outages, and more. Come on people; our infrastructure can’t handle a little rain? It’s absolutely, utterly ridiculous. A single drop of rain turns most DC-area drivers into drunken lemurs.

The National Weather Service certainly isn’t helping matters. Jason Samenow at the Capital Weather Gang raised the question a bit over a week ago whether our local NWS office in Sterling is too trigger-happy with issuing severe weather warnings. There’s no question; they are. An average afternoon thunderstorm passing through on a summer day does not necessarily qualify as ‘severe’, nor is it worthy of initiating the regional Emergency Alert System, interrupting TV programming, or setting our weather radios blaring.

It turns out that the NWS has specific guidelines for what qualifies as a severe storm, and I can only think of one or two storms in the last two months that obviously met the criteria from where I sit. Samenow points out that Washington, DC, fell under severe weather warnings 18 times in June, but there were only 7 confirmed reports of actual severe weather meeting the warning criteria over that time. That’s a less than 40 percent rate of ‘correct’ warnings. This contributes to the ‘OH MY GOD THE SKY IS FALLING!’ weather insanity people have in the area, and also contributes—in the long term—to rational people simply ignoring weather alerts.

Last night, this silliness was illustrated for me quite clearly. My weather radio blared warnings to me about 6 times over the evening for various warnings, including a Flash Flood Warning, Severe Thunderstorm Warning, and even a Tornado Warning. The NWS web site, which I monitored closely throughout the evening, confirmed that my home town of Herndon was within the warned area (the radio will sometimes alert for things elsewhere in Fairfax County). What weather did I see where I was? Well the sky got dark, and it rained for a few minutes, and the trees got blown around by a couple wind gusts (probably in the 20-30 miles-per-hour range, well below the 57 miles-per-hour criteria). I also saw about three bolts of lightning. It’s a good thing I’d been warned!

Granted, some weather in the region likely did qualify as severe (especially the rotation echo, indicating a possible tornado, further south). NWS should indeed err on the side of caution, but they should do so with some discretion. Why issue a warning that applies to the town of Herndon for a storm cell that’s passing by 10 or 15 miles further south? Why issue a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for a storm that doesn’t even come close to meeting the ‘severe’ criteria?

It’s like the old story of the boy who cried ‘wolf’. I like to call this the ‘fire drill phenomenon’. The building I work in has fire alarm tests, roughly, once per month. Since we’re all very busy and have jobs to do, most of us ignore the fire alarms since it’s ‘always’ just a test and eats a full 30-60 minutes of our day if we pack up and leave the building. Someday, when the building is really on fire, the alarms will go off, everybody will ignore them, and people will die. Quite frankly, it would be more effective to virtually never test the fire alarms, so when they really go off in an emergency we know it’s not another pointless drill.

Likewise, weather alerts have become so goofy in the DC metro area that people simply ignore them, thanks to the NWS forecast office in Sterling, Virginia. As a result, when an actual severe storm is passing through, people end up going out anyway and getting hurt because they have ignored the warnings. After all, I could have easily ignored all the warnings last night and I’d have been just fine. The last 20 warnings I probably could have ignored. How am I supposed to know which ones are the silly overreactions, and which ones are the small minority that actually address severe weather and warrant my attention?

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.