Texas Deluge & Perspective

I’ll preface this by saying I am not a social scientist. But I am intricately interested in how my forecasts and commentary are perceived by my audience. I want to ensure the message I’m sending is the right one. I don’t obsess over it, but I kind of do. I always go back over emails after an event and ask myself what I could have said or done better, even if the forecast would be considered a successful one.

I received roughly 9.5″ of rain between Saturday morning and this evening in Houston. That’s a thumping. Yet, fortunately in Houston, problems were relatively minor. Yes, there was flooding. Yes, some people lost their cars. But considering what *could* have been, it wasn’t terrible.

But it got me into a conversation. Having forecasted this event, I found myself feeling very familiar for some reason. This was a complex meteorological setup, involving a number of features. The rains south of Dallas were related, but different relative to the rains in Houston. Ultimately, the remnants of monster Hurricane Patricia got involved and we had some sort of hybrid type storm slide up the Texas coast into Louisiana.

I grew up in the Northeast. What I was doing was treating this like a nor’easter without snow. In my forecasting, I said, this is a lot like any old nor’easter you’d see traveling from NC to off Cape Cod…except in this case, it was from Brownsville to about Cameron, LA. The end result to this forecaster was…nor’easter. Treat the banding like a nor’easter. Emphasize gradients. Play up coastal impacts. All of it made what was a really complicated forecast seem somewhat easy to me. It also made it a LOT easier to communicate the impacts to my audience at work.

I had a good conversation about this via Twitter with Taylor Trogdon (@ttrogdon) of NWS Memphis. He had posted this:

So I mentioned to him that I had really approached this as a nor’easter, and we discussed this further:


And it really struck me what was happening here. When you can actually relate to an event or speak to it from some sort of unique perspective, you add a whole new dimension to your forecast. Not only does it liberate you a little from the uneasiness in the meteorology leading into the forecasted event, it allows you to communicate more effectively and speak from experience in a way that maybe people in your audience could relate to better.

I realized I’ve done this before. During Hurricane Sandy, I had responsibility to forecast for company assets in New York City and Jersey City. I, like many others, struggled to grasp the enormity of the storm. So I knew trying to explain it in a simple manner was going to be close to impossible. So I thought it over and said, “OK, think of the worst nor’easter they’ve experienced in the last 15-20 years.” And I instantly went to December 1992, when I remember pictures of the New York City subway system submerged from flooding during a pretty epic nor’easter. Other than Hurricane Donna in 1960, it was the highest tidal level ever recorded in NYC. So what I told people was to expect a surge/tide that was as bad as December 1992…and likely worse. And I constantly emphasized that, because I knew it would likely exceed 1992. I could tell people all day that tidal levels would be 10-12′ or higher in New York, but no one would really be able to truly grasp┬áthat. So by inserting a visualization (Hey, remember 1992…we had flooding in the tunnels and subways. Yeah, it’s going to be at least that bad and probably worse.) I was able to get my audience to understand that it was going to do serious damage.

So, what’s the lesson in all this? If you can relate a forecast to something unique that YOU have experienced or witnessed, you can better communicate that information to your audience. We rely on computers so much for our forecast data, but to inject a human element into the whole thing is much more difficult. But it can add so much when communicating the info to other human beings. That’s why I’d advocate you become very familiar with local weather history for where you forecast. Just remember…no two weather events are ever exactly alike. Yes, you can help make a weather event more relatable, but it’s important to make sure the risks are highlighted. Make sure a good balance is struck. If I can do that, I feel like I’ve been successful.