Sunday’s Big Mess

I-95 Sunday Morning in Stamford
I-95 Sunday Morning in Stamford

It’s not an exaggeration to say Sunday morning’s ice event was a disaster on highways across the state. Around 8 a.m. I-95 was effectively impassable from Greenwich to Stamford as freezing rain resulted in countless accidents, stranded cars, dozens of injuries.

In New Haven an 88-year old woman was killed in one accident on North Frontage Road. There were a total of 40 accidents in the city with most resulting in at least minor injuries according to New Haven police. In New London, 6 people were injured in a 22 car pile-up just prior to the Gold Star Bridge on I-95. On highways across the state the State Police responded to 216 accidents with injuries occurring in 28 of them. There were countless other accidents on town roads across Connecticut with many more injuries.

The forecast for this event was decent. It wasn’t great but it certainly wasn’t bad. The worst of the icing occurred just prior to 9 a.m. in Fairfield County. In Bridgeport only 0.01″ of freezing rain was reported through 8:52 a.m. and just over the border at the White Plains Airport next to Greenwich 0.06″ of freezing rain fell through 8:56 a.m.

This minor amount of freezing rain was all it took to turn the Connecticut Turnpike into a skating rink. Our computer models showed this pretty well with some signs of light precipitation breaking out with low level cold hanging tough. Experience told us that the cold air would likely not be dislodged as quickly as the models were indicating so that lead us to a forecast of freezing rain at the onset. Here’s the high-resolution NAM forecast sounding for 7 a.m. Sunday – this forecast was based on a computer model that rain Saturday evening – 12 hours prior to the event.

bufkitprofileBy this point we’ve gone from something the models hinted at (plus experience telling us that the cold air would likely hang on a bit longer) to something our higher resolution computer models were explicitly showing. In addition, pavement temperatures by Sunday morning were near 20 degrees – cold enough to cause major issues with temperatures near freezing.

So what went wrong? To be honest I’m not sure. With freezing rain in the forecast we seemingly did “our jobs” in the weather department but at the end of the day that didn’t matter much. Roads were a mess, a number of people wound up in hospitals, and auto body shops saw a sudden surge in business! Were the roads not pretreated or treated fast enough? Was there a breakdown in communication between local/state DOT and their weather forecast provider?  I don’t know.

This brings me to my last point about the state of weather warnings and advisories we use from the National Weather Service. Sunday morning’s icing was arguably more dangerous and impactful than the majority of snowstorms we get that meet “winter storm warning” criteria. In fact, I would argue, that Sunday morning’s ice event was far more dangerous than many severe thunderstorm and tornado warning events in Connecticut are. The last tornado fatality in Connecticut was in 1989 (how many tornado warnings have been issued since? 100?) while in the last 20 years the nearly 3 dozen actual tornado touchdowns have resulted in only 4 injuries according to Storm Data published by the National Weather Service.

I believe the warning/advisory/watch system used by the National Weather Service and us here in local media is pretty close to broken. That said, I don’t know the answer to how we should fix it but I think we need to take a long and hard look at how and why warnings are issued and try to come up with a better system that can keep people safer.

3 thoughts on “Sunday’s Big Mess”

  1. I don’t know what the solution is at an “official” level either. But I will say that social media reports on Twitter and Facebook from folks like you and your colleagues across the sate are what kept me off the highways on Sunday morning. I don’t know how a bureaucracy will ever be able to incorporate that level of real-time service and accessibility, but I think the answer lies in there somewhere. Accurate information needs to be highly localized, easily digestible and readily available.

  2. Pavement surface temps are the biggest factor. We have traffic cams set up at numerous locations of our highway infrastructure, why not get pavement temperature readings also and have this information available to DOT dispatch. Surface layer cold is hard to predict especially in the valleys but this will be at least instrumental for DOT dispatch and perhaps decisions on closing down highways before a multi car accident leads to closure.

  3. Ryan, your humility in being willing to address this is admirable and highly commendable. I’m a bit weather-obsessed myself, having grown up in Miami and still not having become fully used to the Southern New England cold. Anytime a meteorologist mentions the possibility of freezing rain anywhere in the region, all my plans are on hold until I go outside and do a “hockey rink or not” test. On MANY occasions I’ve found that while you or one of your colleagues are assuring me that icing won’t extend to the Shoreline, I am nonetheless slip sliding away. On Saturday night, the Shoreline forecast was for temperatures above freezing by 8am, and the focus of the warnings of treacherous travel really seemed more directed to inland communities. As your blogpost noted, however, the one fatality on Sunday morning was here in New Haven.

    Perhaps one element of adequately warning viewers before an ice event is focusing on how dangerous ice will be for the entire broadcast area rather than trying to draw an artificial, and ultimately unpredictable, line between freezing and plain rain. There are so many factors that can skew temperatures a degree or two, even within the same city or town, that declaring with certainty that one town is not under the gun while another is increases the likelihood of inaccuracies. I’d rather have you warn me to be careful when I head out, than to give me the all clear and then find my car – and my front steps! – encased in ice.

    Again, thanks for the candor and the earnest attempt to constantly improve what you do. Keep up the good work.

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