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                   Friday, January 2, 2009 - 8:54PM

Stronger NWS wording needed for freezing rain

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On Tuesday, December 23, 2008, freezing rain took the lives of 32 people in the midwest. It happened again on Friday, December 26, when 10 people died - 7 in Indiana alone. Hundreds if not thousands of accidents - too numerous to realistically count - resulted in countless more injuries and no doubt millions of dollars in damage. The tractor-trailer crashes alone easily resulted in millions of dollars lost in equipment and shipments combined. Entire cities and counties were shut down. People were stranded on highways in traffic jams for hours.

Tornadoes are a fearsome and deadly phenomena. Decades of research, forecasting and warning priority have been given to the cause of protecting life and property from this danger. Television stations go wall-to-wall when a tornado warning is issued. Sirens sound. People stop what they are doing and take cover. And as a result, lives are saved every year.

Freezing rain accidents are the most severe of all weather-related crashes because drivers can't see the hazard. And consequently, they are traveling faster, caught completely by surprise, and when their vehicles lose control, impacts are some of the most severe of all collisions. It doesn't take a well-warned ice storm - all it takes is a little freezing drizzle, a little rain shower that no one is watching.

So my question is, why does a developing freezing rain scenario get little more than a last-minute advisory? I've watched time and time again this winter as National Weather Service advisories are quietly issued in the middle of the night, during rush hour, in mid-afternoon - with little fanfare. Rain moves in with temperatures below 32 degrees, and no one notices - no wall-to-wall TV coverage, no sirens, no warning tones, nothing. People then get in their cars and get on the interstates, oblivious to the fact that they are facing a danger that is more likely to kill them that day than a tornado, hurricane, lightning strike or flood (or any other weather phenomena) in their entire lifetime.

So what can be done? Granted, it is well-known that even tornado warnings have a hard time getting to the people who need to hear them, as they often aren't prepared with the means to receive them. But at least the warnings are there. Freezing rain is a weather phenomena that definitely deserves much stronger wording and more aggressive public dissemination of the warnings than it's getting now.

I'm offering these suggestions:

  • Expand and emphasize HPC freezing rain outlooks - NOAA's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center currently issues outlooks for freezing rain twice a day for the continental US (similar to the SPC convective outlooks - Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3). However, the outlooks only denote areas that are at risk from receiving a quarter of an inch or more of ice. The outlooks are more geared at alerting for ice storm potential, not icy roads. The criteria for an outlooked area needs to be expanded to include any area that is at risk for receiving light freezing rain - anything that could cause road hazards.
  • More aggressive warning dissemination - No more "freezing rain advisories" - I think we need to see something akin to '(life-threatening) road ice warnings'. I think at the very least, tones should go out on commercial radio and TV airwaves. Anything to alert the public of the gravity of the situation. This hazard needs to be given the same treatment as a 'tornado emergency' - it's taking two to three times as more lives.
  • More aggressive awareness campaigns - Awareness campaigns are already in effect for lightning, tornadoes, floods, severe weather and winter weather. I recommend that freezing rain and icy roads be given their own emphasis separate from the winter weather umbrella. I believe that the public needs to develop the same respect for icy roads as they do tornadoes and hurricanes, to the point of recognizing the warning signs and chainging their decision making process when icy roads threaten.
There is nothing worse than freezing rain. We had an event in my region a few weeks ago and there were thousands of accidents. I also noted that lack of media attention the night before the event. Few people knew there was an advisory. I agree with your above thoughts and am going to send this to my local office.
- Posted by Beau from Kentucky

I couldn't agree with you more. I expanded on this a bit over at my blog:
- Posted by Michael W. Moss from New Whiteland, Indiana

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