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Don’t blame the metorologists for today’s flood bust

Editor’s note: Stephen is a life-long Houstonian and avid weather-geek.  He grew up fascinated with the wild Houston weather and loves writing about the processes that create it and its impacts on the area. You can find him on twitter @stephenuzick He will be providing occasional weather coverage for the site.

By STEPHEN UZICK

Another holiday, another storm for the Houston area. Over the past couple of years the metro area has seen its significant weather events almost exclusively fall on holidays, or otherwise easily identifiable days: Memorial Day and Halloween in 2015, Tax Day in 2016, and to a lesser extent Valentines Day of this year all saw memorable events.  Up until about three days ago it was looking like Presidents Day 2017 had the potential to continue this new Houston tradition.  If you watched the local news at all this week you likely became very aware of that.  Clearly the advertised disaster did not strike as we have not floated off into the Gulf. What you may have missed though is that this morning’s non-event was a win for the meteorologists and a fail for the journalists.

Today’s rain came from same storm system that gave California a historic soaking late last week.  Last week, computer model forecasts were genuinely concerning with many showing near record levels of atmospheric moisture for this time of year (some models showed moisture levels at 400% of normal levels), and painting rainfall amounts of 6-plus inches in various spots across the region.  With the city’s increased sensitivity to flooding, local media began warning of the potential of a flood event as soon as the Valentines Day storms dissipated last week.  In meteorological terms, 6 to 7 days out is a long way off to start sounding an alarm, however given the recent string of disasters I cannot entirely fault them for wanting to give viewers a mental head start on the event.  While it never actually looked as if this storm would produce Memorial Day or Tax Day type flooding, the media has become acutely aware that any type of heavy rain event now sends people into a tizzy.

As the timing of the storm moved closer it became more apparent that the atmospheric mechanisms necessary to produce extreme rainfall were going to be more subdued. This is where the news arm and meteorology arm of the local media began diverging in their approach.  On-air meteorologists began walking back expectations in the weather segments, going from 6 to 8 inch rain totals down to accumulations of 1 to 3 inches.  However, that more muted response was largely lost on the news team, who continued reporting on it as if another large flood was on the way. Even last night, when forecasters had a pretty good feeling this would be non-event, local stations had reporters around the city showing road barricades being prepared and the city’s disaster response team being activated.

Could this have turned into a more serious issue? Yes, that possibility existed, but was becoming increasingly unlikely.  While thankfully doom did not fall from the clouds, many people will regard this as a bust and submit it to the “meteorologists don’t know what they are talking about” file.  In reality, the meteorologists did an excellent job of forecasting, it is their colleagues at the news desk that deserve any bust blame on this one.

 

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