Sunday, February 7, 2016

Weather Forecasting: A Miserable Job

Weather forecasters have a miserable job. On one hand, they predict impending catastrophic weather and save lives. Think of residents if Oklahoma who made it to shelter before devastating F5 tornadoes bore down on their neighborhoods and businesses. On the other, these same experts frequently predict impending catastrophic storms and the cell fritzes out, leaving the audience to compare yesterday’s hero to the boy who cried wolf. It’s a dilemma.

Not surprisingly, erratic weather has made Kansas weather announcers gun shy about making firm forecasts. One of my favorites grinned as he explained he was in the business of stating what might happen, not necessarily what would. Recent blizzard reports certainly had viewers wondering whether our favorite storm team was on target or if we had cleared milk, bread, and toilet paper shelves at local markets for no reason. I heard more than one person questioning the forecast when it didn’t arrive as soon as announcers said it might.

When this storm actually hit and blowing snow coated to our windows and doors, I recollected blizzards I’d either read about or lived through myself. As recently as a couple of decades ago, I don’t recall getting much warning about whiteouts that slowed travel to a crawl or shut it down entirely. I remember times I drove twenty miles  to work on clear roads in the morning and found myself unable to tell if I was actually driving on asphalt and not in the ditch during an unannounced, sideways-blowing-snow,  two hour marathon home.

This brought to mind a favorite Mari Sandoz novel 80s and 90s era students read. Each year, I assigned Winter Thunder in January or February so readers could relate to High Plains weather’s ability to change quickly. Every one of my kids paid close attention to this tale of Nebraska Sandhill schoolchildren who got on a bus to leave their one room schoolhouse at beginning of a snowstorm.

During the course of the story, class released early, in hopes kids would beat the storm home. Unfortunately, their bus overturned and caught fire as the whiteout roared to life. The young teacher, a 16-year-old student bus driver, and the rest of the children faced freezing to death as they escaped wearing only standard winter clothing and carrying that day’s lunches.

Sandoz based this weeklong survival tale on her schoolteacher niece’s experience in 1949. The gripping narrative detailed kids and teacher blindly clasping the person in front of them as they followed a fence line into willows where they sheltered until rescuers found them days later. Imagine every edgy child’s survival story you’ve read or watched involving frozen limbs and starvation to consider how frightening this was.

Thinking about this turned my mind down another bunny trail as I recalled a carload of Ellis teens lost in a blizzard in the late 80s. If you weren’t on a search team defying Mother Nature’s nastiest as you tried to find these youngsters, you were praying for children, families, and rescuers. The element this event shared with Mari Sandoz’s Winter Thunder was that before events turned into a life or death matter, no one had an inkling such a powerful storm was moving in.

Now, when my favorite weather team tells me to prepare for the worst, I do, knowing very well that their forecast will probably be wrong. I’d rather re-plan something than begin a trip thinking I had nothing to worry about.

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