By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
Last week, two major snowstorms hit the East Coast, with up to 15 inches of snow reported in some areas. Nashville reported its first measurable snow in six years. Similarly, Florida recorded its first snowfall since 2018.
This one-two punch of winter storms, while well forecasted, paralyzed the eastern third of the U.S. and had a catastrophic domino effect on the entire country. Multiple power outages, school closures, flight delays, and problems with depleted food and other supplies were prevalent for up to a week.
In addition, a snowstorm caused a 50-mile backup on Virginia’s Interstate 95, stranding drivers for over 24 hours. The same storm caused several fatalities and knocked out power to homes and businesses for several days. A second snowstorm three days later produced snowfall from Virginia to Maine and prompted two states to declare a state of emergency.
Why the I-95 Backup Was So Severe
A major logistics misstep in the I-95 situation was that this interstate highway was not pretreated with chemicals before the snowstorm. Officials felt that any chemicals used to pretreat road surfaces would be washed away by the rain that preceded the snowstorm.
The slick road surfaces caused tractor trailers on I-95 to jackknife, resulting in multi-car vehicle crashes that blocked the movement of other vehicles. Drivers attempting to exit the highway had problems because there were few exits along that section of I-95.
For those vehicle drivers who were able to exit the interstate, secondary roads in the region were blocked by downed trees or snow. Those conditions caused additional traffic backups on those secondary roads, and nearby gas stations ran out of fuel.
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The Two Snowstorms Also Created Other Transportation Challenges
The two winter storms that occurred last week impacted all forms of transportation. For instance, the severe weather caused over 8,000 aircraft flights to be delayed and also impacted the movement of freight and passenger trains.
As a result of snow and branches blocking the rails, Amtrak travelers were stranded in Virginia for nearly 30 hours on January 3. Food supplies became low, and toilets were backed up.
The Various Hazards of Winter Precipitation
These snowstorms, while devastating, were not unique to the East Coast. In fact, winter events are becoming more impactful. The atmosphere produces storm systems when cold Arctic air collides with warm Atlantic moisture, creating winter weather across multiple states.
In addition, gusty winds and blowing snow also complicate travel. Freezing rain, sleet and snow can produce various types of hazards:
- Freezing rain frequently causes damage to trees and vegetation, as well as power outages from frozen electrical lines.
- A wintry mix that includes sleet can cause vehicles to skid, damage rooftops and create ice jams that cause water damage to buildings.
- Improperly shoveling heavy, wet snow can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Weather was the number one reason for supply chain delays prior to the emergence of COVID-19. Indefinite delays due to shutdowns, quarantines, and lockdowns are only compounded by any type of weather challenge, especially with the severe weather that occurred last week.
Clearly, an overnight snowfall of a few inches can paralyze a city and lead to unnecessary deaths due to unpreparedness and a lack of information. This triple threat of COVID-19, winter storms, and ongoing supply chain issues have caused supply problems at grocery stores, delays in overnight delivery services, and increases in gas prices.
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Our Changing Climate and Its Relationship to Winter Storms
Climate change is fueling extreme weather events, so how does climate change affect winter storms? One would think winter weather would become weaker as a result of climate change, but the opposite is the case.
According to EarthJustice, “As the warming atmosphere traps water vapor later and later into the year, that precipitation leads to heavier snowfall when the temperatures do drop. In addition, the rapidly warming Arctic is weakening the jet stream and causing disruptions of the polar vortex (bands of wind and low air pressure near the North Pole, which normally lock cold air over the Arctic). When those bands break down, icy air can escape south in the form of freezing winters.”
While our winters are becoming shorter and milder, snow events are becoming more intense on a global scale. For example, a winter storm in Pakistan on January 7 killed 22 people. Many of the victims died of hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning as they left their cars on to stay warm.
A Greater Awareness of Winter Weather Across the US Is Vital
A greater awareness of winter weather and preparedness procedures is needed for all U.S. citizens. Even for regions that have few winter weather events, local cities and towns must be properly prepared to protect themselves.
In addition, road sanitation crews have a limited budget in areas where it does not snow often. This limited budget puts communities at risk since their road crews may be unable to quickly support a large winter weather event that materializes quickly.
Winter will last another two months, so it’s essential to stay prepared for anything that winter may bring. Ready.gov provides these winter weather safety tips:
- Use insulation, caulking and weather stripping to insulate your home.
- Allow faucets to drip to keep pipes from freezing.
- Install and test smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors with battery backups.
- Gather supplies in case you need to stay home for several days without power.
- Keep enough medication to use for several days.
- Care for pets by bringing them inside during weather events.
- Have extra batteries for radios and flashlights.
- Create an emergency supply kit for your car.
- Keep a full tank of gas.
- If you’re shoveling snow from walkways or driveways, don’t wait until the snow is over to start shoveling. Shovel every three to four hours and take frequent breaks.
- Pretreat roads, sidewalks, and entry steps before the storm with sand or rock salt. Push snow instead of lifting it, and use an ergonomic shovel to reduce injuries.
Winter weather will continue to occur, so it’s not an issue of if snowstorms will happen, but when they will happen. Following winter weather safety tips is crucial to prepare for the next snowstorm, so you and your family will be safe.