This week’s killer freeze in the U.S. was no surprise.
Government and private meteorologists saw it coming, some nearly three weeks in advance. They started sounding warnings two weeks ahead of time. They talked to officials. They issued blunt warnings through social media.
And yet catastrophe happened. At least 20 people have died, and 4 million homes at some point lost power, heat, or water.
Experts said meteorologists had both types of sciences down right: the math-oriented atmospheric physics for the forecast and the squishy social sciences on how to get their message across.
“This became a disaster because of human and infrastructure frailty, a lack of planning for the worst-case scenario, and the enormity of the extreme weather,” said disaster science professor Jeannette Sutton of University at Albany in New York.
The event shows how unprepared the nation and its infrastructure are for extreme weather events that will become more significant problems with climate change, meteorologists and disaster experts said.
Insured damages — only a fraction of the actual costs — for the nearly week-long intense freeze starting Valentine’s Day weekend are probably $18 billion, according to a preliminary estimate from the risk-modeling firm Karen Clark & Company.
Kim Klockow-McClain heads the National Weather Service’s behavioral insights unit, which focuses on making forecasts and warnings easier for people to understand and act on. People heard the message and got the signs, she said. For various reasons — thinking cold is no big deal, not having experienced this type of extreme cold, and focusing more on snow and ice than the temperature — they were unprepared, Klockow-McClain said.
The meteorology was by far the easiest part of this,” Klockow-McClain said.
Private winter storm expert Judah Cohen of Atmospheric and Environmental Research blogged about the danger on Jan. 25. He said the meteorological signal from the Arctic, where the cold air was escaping, literally blinking red. It was the strongest I’d seen. At the University of Oklahoma, meteorology professor Kevin Kloesel, who also is the school’s emergency manager, sent out an alert on Jan. 31 warning of “sub-freezing temperatures and the possibility of sub-zero wind chills.” By Feb. 7, almost a week before the worst of the freeze started, he was sending multiple warnings a day.