Americans know a lot about planning for hurricanes, and about voluntary and mandatory evacuations. They also know that some hurricanes bring major damages to urban and rural areas alike, and that on rare occasions (Katrina comes to mind) the failure of people to heed the call to “get the hell outta Dodge” can have disastrous results.
The National Weather Service on its website explains that, “Whenever a tropical [storm] has formed in the Atlantic or eastern North Pacific [or the central North Pacific], the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] National Hurricane Center issues tropical cyclone advisory products at least every 6 hours.” As soon as a hurricane watch or warning is issued, these advisories come every 3 hours.
When evacuation orders are issued, there are always a few who opt to “ride out the storm,” fearing the theft of their property more than their possible loss of life. Even then rescue teams are sent out in dangerous weather to save those losing their gamble with the storm.
On January 11, the National Geographic had warned that, “The polar vortex is coming – and raising the odds for intense winter weather,” caused by a sudden rise in temperatures in the stratosphere above Siberia. This polar vortex “could mean frigid winter weather pummelling the U.S. Midwest and Northeast and the mid-latitude regions of Europe.” Not a word about intense cold in the American southwest.
NOAA’s Climate.gov website on January 28 announced, “The POLAR VORTEX is coming!!!!!” NOAA explained that the impetus for this extremely rare event was caused by a “sudden stratospheric warming” [SSW] that occurred on January 5, an event which NOAA says happens about six times per decade. [Technically, the actual polar vortex never entered the U.S.; the outbreak resulted from a high-pressure buildup over Canada caused by stratospheric warming that began late in December.]
NOAA acknowledged that already “parts of Europe have seen very cold weather in the north and stormy weather in the south.” Meteorologist Joe Bastardi, who predicted in his Twitter feed that
“Texas is going to be tested on so many levels” by the coming storm, acknowledged that NOAA’s own forecasting model prompted comparisons to the disastrous 1899 polar vortex incident that dropped temperatures below zero in every U.S. state.
On February 3, Jennifer Gray at CNN announced that, “It’s about to get so cold that boiling water will flash freeze, frostbite could occur within 30 minutes and it will become a shock to the system for even those who are used to the toughest winters.” She went on to state that “the coldest air of the season will be diving south, not leaving anyone out. Every single state in the US – including Hawaii – will reach below freezing temperatures on Monday” [February 8th].
The next day, Austin’s KXAN-TV issued its own “First Warning: Extended Arctic blast coming to Texas.” Emmy-winning meteorologist David Yeomans noted that his actual first warning had actually come a month earlier – around the day after the Siberian SSW event.
Yeomans stated that the cold front would likely plunge into Texas by February 9th, “cooling us off dramatically by the middle of next week.” While “this pattern may last for an extended amount of time,” Yeomans predicted just “4 to 5 days where local temperatures remain in the 30s and 40s into Valentine’s Day weekend.” Yeomans concluded that, while “some precipitation appears possible … it is too soon for specifics on this Arctic outbreak and potential winter storm.”
But he did not foresee the impending disaster; nor did most others in the field. And yet actual lowest temperatures in Austin reached 9o F – the lowest in 32 years and just the fifth single-digit low in a century. And not until Valentine’s Day did the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT) declare an “energy emergency alert three” that mandated rolling outages.
Texans were clearly not prepared by their federal, state, or local governments or even their local news media outlets (let alone ERCOT) of the magnitude of this polar storm or of the devastation it could/did cause. Prior to most hurricanes (or even pandemics) people get a warning to prepare. But there was no urgent demand that people secure their water pipes and expect water cutoffs, plan for lengthy power and therefore heating outages, and worse.
But Texas, whose public officials are getting slammed for their lack of foresight, is not alone in this disaster. You may have heard of the 100,000-plus Oregonians who have gone all week without electric power “days after a snow and ice storm swept through the region.” Portland General Electric (PGE) spokesperson Dale Goodman, noting that over 2,000 power lines were still down two days after the storm, lamented that, “These are the most dangerous conditions we’ve ever seen in the history of PGE.”
And this is after PGE had worked tirelessly to restore power for over half a million other customers affected by the polar storm. People there, too, died from carbon monoxide poisoning; food is spoiling, and many of the 200,000 customers who lost service may not get their Internet back for weeks. Oregon is much smaller than Texas, with fewer people and colder weather. Portland’s average February temperature is 10o F cooler than Austin’s.
There will be plenty of time to assess blame, along with damages that can and cannot be recovered, in the aftermath of this massive storm, which has also caused major power outages in Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Job one, however, should be to get people back into their homes, their jobs, their hospitals (one Austin hospital had lost power and water), and their lives. Blame throwing only gets in the way of human rescue.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called for an investigation of ERCOT, acknowledging that the power grid curators have been “anything but reliable over the past 48 hours. Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable.” Well, DUH!
The worst thing: The nightmare is far from over. The damages are widespread, and it will be some time before a calculation as to the actual cost – as well as the avoidable cost – of this supposedly rare event. Will Texas shrug its shoulders and simply say, “This can’t happen again.” Will Oregonians? Will the entire nation, which will suffer the effects of this loss of economic energy that Texas has suffered?
Any investigation must begin with the fact that hardly anyone paid attention to NOAA’s warnings that this storm could have major impacts. Perhaps winter storms need sexy names to become as “popular” as hurricanes or to compete with partisan bickering on Capitol Hill. Maybe we need a thorough review of all disaster preparedness, including spring floods, summer fires, and autumn hurricanes and tropical storms..
Will the American people get this kind of response from their elected officials – or from those charged with direct oversight of our land and water and infrastructure? Or will we spend the next two, four, or ten years bickering over trivia like the childish emperor Nero as our nation falls apart and becomes even easier pickings for predator nations?