The Worst Commute Ever: What Went Wrong Last Night In Portland

December 15, 2016

9pm Thursday…

After the disastrous December 29, 2009 commute (the worst I had ever seen), I wrote quite a long blog post explaining what went wrong with the forecast.  This time it’s a bit different.  Most of the problem wasn’t with the forecast or the forecasters, although we should accept a small part of the blame as you’ll see.  I don’t want this to turn into some diatribe against our hard-working friends who work for the government, so I’ll keep it brief.  If I get any facts wrong, PLEASE correct me in the comments below.

 

First, the forecast was CORRECT.  The Portland NWS forecast 2-5″ of snow and my 1/2″-2″ were fine.  Actually anything over 1″ would have had the same effect.  The drama had unfolded within the first two hours when the initial snowfall began.  Timing was excellent, with flurries beginning around Noon-1pm and then real accumulations beginning around 1:30 west metro and a little later east and north metro.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

  1. MANY OF YOU DECIDED TO WAIT UNTIL SNOW WAS IN THE AIR OR ON THE GROUND TO HEAD HOME  I was driving into work 11:30-12:30 and highways were fine, traffic was light.  Apparently lots of people didn’t head home at noon or 1pm.
  2. PORTLAND FREEWAYS HAVE NOT KEPT UP WITH OUR POPULATION GROWTH  This isn’t meant to be a political statement, but just a fact that we are over capacity.  We’ve run one story after another about the constant traffic jams on various freeways.  I remember moving back to the area in 1991 and thinking “wow, there are still only two lanes on I-5 by the Memorial Coliseum.  They’ll probably add a lane soon”.  Well, it’s 25 years later!  How is it possible that in a metro area of 1.5 million people we still have a two lane freeway through the central core???  So regardless of the choices that have led to this, if you have a surge of people suddenly head out on the highways, the roads will get jammed.
  3. TOO MANY PEOPLE WERE TAKING A BIG CHANCE DRIVING A CAR THAT SHOULDN’T BE ON SNOWY ROADS.  Regardless of the reasons for driving that vehicle, many of us share responsibility for this one.  People driving cars and/or tires that shouldn’t be on ice/snow are a big problem because they caused backups for others.
  4. SOME SCHOOL DISTRICTS (INCLUDING PORTLAND/GRESHAM/BEAVERTON) CHOSE TO DO A FULL DAY AND HAVE BUSES ON THE ROADS WHEN SNOW IS FALLING.  Of course reporters have grilled all the local districts about the fiasco.  They have all apologized profusely and plan to be a bit more careful next time.  Fair enough.  Here’s an interesting tidbit…The superintendent of the Beaverton District said this in his note to parents: “Unfortunately, the weather arrived sooner than expected”.  Of course that’s not true.   But after thinking about it, I realized that statement could be directly related to our forecasts…item #5
  5. FORECASTS HAVE IMPROVED DRAMATICALLY THE PAST 15 YEARS, EXPECTATIONS ARE HIGHER.  Back in 2000 we would have just forecast “snow developing, 1-4″ by evening”.  But nowadays we can often pinpoint the timing and give a more detailed forecast.  Thus my 2pm-9pm snow forecast the day before.  Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t have started at 1pm or 3pm, or even 12 or 4.  But people are trusting us more than ever.  The key here is that we are implying more accuracy than we can REALLY deliver most of the time. One phrase I never use on TV and we don’t use at FOX12 but I hear used a lot:  YOUR HOUR BY HOUR FORECAST.  That’s a load of TV marketing crap; we can’t forecast down to the hour and neither can your app.  But sometimes we can get close.  To summarize:  If we say 2pm-9pm, it’s probably safest to be out of there a good two hours before that.  Again, this is partly our fault.
  6. LOCAL GOVERNMENT AGENCIES DON’T MAINTAIN MASSIVE FLEETS OF SNOW REMOVAL EQUIPMENT AND DON’T USE SALT ON METRO AREA ROADS SINCE WE RARELY GET BIG STORMS.  Again, regardless of the reasoning, these are just choices we have made.  Would we double the size of the plow fleet in the area for an event that happens only once every 5 years?  I doubt most of us would think it’s worth the cost.  As for salting roads, it was sure interesting visiting a local mall parking lot and two other establishments this evening…wet parking areas.  As soon as I hit city streets again it was a sheet of ice.  Obviously they are using something different at private businesses.  Seattle also didn’t use salt…until a mayor lost re-election after a big snowstorm fiasco up there in 2008.   They now use it during major storms only…seems like that could be a reasonable environmental compromise?  You can discuss that below.

There you go…my thoughts on the 1-3″ snowstorm that brought us the worst commute ever in Portland.  Feel free to comment, but if you are new to the blog your comment won’t show up until I let it pass through.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen


Final Storm Totals & Cold Nights Ahead

December 15, 2016

There has been some confusion over the official snow total here in Portland.  Of course to meteorologists and weather stat geeks this is IMPORTANT stuff!

The official snow total that will go in the record books for the Portland observation will be 1.5″ from yesterday’s storm

marksnow_portlandwintertotal

The official observations between 1940 and 1996 were taken at the Portland airport, but when the Portland NWS forecast office moved, the observations moved as well.  At that time most of the time snow observations stopped at the airport. So for the past 20 years our official snow reports come from the Parkrose area, a few miles SE of the airport.

Around 2008 (during that big snow event) I noticed observers started occasionally reporting snow totals at the airport again.  As far as I’m aware they have not been required to do that but they do from time to time.  Someone from the FAA/NWS can correct me if I’m wrong about the observers out there.

Snow depth is also recorded at KGW which is part of the official downtown record.  They had 1.5″ as well.  Now today the observer reported 2.3″ AT the airport, so that may be a number you are hearing.

Here’s our final snow map then which includes those totals:

marksnowtotals_metro_onemap

Obviously the downtown and NWS office numbers seem a little low, although they fit well into the 1-3″ range I mentioned in the previous posting.

Now we’ve seen 2, yes 2 measurable snowfalls this month…how exciting.  That means it’s the SNOWIEST DECEMBER SINCE 2009.  Very dramatic I know, but it’s Portland.

markdecembersnowpdx

Let’s briefly talk weather…it’s gonna be real quiet the next few days.  Pretty much dry Friday-Sunday unless we get flurries, mainly on Sunday.

Skies will at least partially clear tonight, so I’m going for a 21 at PDX with our partially snow-covered ground.  IF we get total clearing by midnight, these forecast temperatures will be on the high side:

fcst_tonight_metro

Tomorrow night should be colder with drier air and NO cloud cover.  I expect to see widespread teens even in the urban areas.  Friday night should be the coldest we have seen in 3 winters:

markcold_yearlylowtempspdx

By the way, I got very lucky last night.  My commute (43 miles this time) was only 20 minutes longer than normal due to light traffic, a good 4Runner, and new studded tires.

Only 2″ snow for me, but enough to run my new (used) toy.  A Craigslist snowblower!  I bought it from some guy back in August.  He moved here from Fairbanks, lived in Gresham, and didn’t use it for 3 years.  Fun times, but it would get really old if you have to do it every other day for 4 months!

Stay warm!

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen