What happened to KC’s Ice-ageddon? We ‘over-forecast,’ weather service concedes

Kansas City hit with freezing rain, slick roads

Freezing rain slowly moved into the Kansas City area early Sunday and is expected to intensify into the afternoon hours. The National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, Mo., has slightly lowered its estimates on total ice accumulations, but roads w
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Freezing rain slowly moved into the Kansas City area early Sunday and is expected to intensify into the afternoon hours. The National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, Mo., has slightly lowered its estimates on total ice accumulations, but roads w

Worried schools and universities shut down.

Churches canceled.

Stay off lethal roads, highway officials warned as, in Missouri, Gov. Eric Greitens declared a state of emergency. Grocery stores were quickly picked clean Thursday and the National Guard was put on alert to prepare for a possible weekend Ice-ageddon — the worst ice storm to hit Kansas City and the region since 2002.

Then? Ice-ageddon turned into ice-a-forget’em.

The storm predicted by the National Weather Service as “dangerous and potentially crippling” mostly meowed in Kansas City.

Instead of downing power lines and buckling trees with a quarter to half an inch of ice, a subtle wave of wet and wintry weather left Kansas City with a thin glaze on its streets and trees along with a few cold hard questions regarding how much to believe the next time such a dire warning is issued.

“First, fake news. Now fake weather? Kansas City, where’s this #icestorm?” wrote one critic on Twitter. Along those same lines, wrote another: “That awkward moment when the 2017 Midwest Ice Storm is fake news. LOL.”

To be sure, most people are grateful that Kansas City did not become encased in ice, cold, and the dark of power outages like in 2002.

At the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, Mo., lead forecaster Jared Leighton was nonetheless up front about whether the service “over-forecast” the storm for the Kansas City area.

“Yeah. I mean, we did,” he said Tuesday. “There was a quarter-inch to a half-inch in the forecast, and there was a glaze of ice. Even if we were more conservative, it would have been an over-forecast.”

Kansas Highway Patrol posted a video Sunday on Facebook showing a semi-truck losing control and careening toward a KHP officer in Russell County on I-70.

Leighton does offer an explanation:

“The event,” he said, “was never really forecast to be a catastrophic event (in Kansas City). I mean, we were expecting more ice than materialized. There is no getting around that. The forecast did not work out as far as the quantitative number goes.…Granted, those amounts did not materialize by any stretch of the imagination.”

But, he said, if one looks at the bigger picture — the regionwide impact — the forecast was on point.

“The impact we were forecasting did, for the most part, come true,” Leighton said, “which was isolated power outages. Roads were a mess, especially overnight Friday and Saturday night. We had two fatality accidents due to the ice.”

He pointed out that areas of south of Kansas City did get three-quarters of an inch of ice. The area around Butler, Mo., got half an inch. A quarter of an inch dropped in the northern part of the state, from St. Joseph and into southeastern Nebraska. Parts of Kansas, near Larned, were covered in three-quarters of an inch of ice, downing power lines, plunging residents into the dark and snapping massive trees.

So it’s not that the forecast was wholly wrong, Leighton said, but more that the Kansas City area fell in what he called a “bull’s-eye of minimal amounts.” The storm system that was to bring the ice extended from Texas to the bottom third of Minnesota.

On Sunday, in fact, three early Southwest Airlines flights headed toward New Orleans were canceled, not just because of weather in Kansas City, but also because of high winds and thunderstorms in the Dallas area.

“You can kind of imagine, our frustration, and, I guess, it’s a good frustration,” Leighton said. “Who really wants an ice storm? But you can imagine from the scientific part of it, the verification part of it, the frustration on our end....”

Leighton understands that only offers little consolation to those who count on accurate forecasts in Kansas City. Some local business owners suffered the consequences.

Barton Bloom didn’t think about closing Tomfooleries last weekend for a second.

The owner of the bar and restaurant on the Plaza said the key to a good business is “longevity and consistency” — if you are closed for every storm, then folks will turn elsewhere for business.

“I would not close,” Bloom said. “It would take me not being able to be here; that’s the bottom line. If I can serve food and drinks we’re going to be open.”

Still, Bloom said, he felt frustrated by weather hype he considers blown “out of proportion.” Forecasts calling for a serious ice storm, as well as the Country Club Plaza’s decision to close shops early on Saturday, affected business even as weather became decidedly more rainy and wet throughout the weekend.

Bloom said the bar wasn’t dead over the weekend, but certainly wasn’t as busy as normal. In hindsight, the hysteria that seemed to spread through social media and in weather reports seemed silly and premature.

“You have to err on the side of caution and I’m aware of that,” Bloom said. “But every storm and every disaster the first thing they say is, ‘Oh my God, don’t leave your house,’ and every time it hurts business.”

Weather concerns also prompted the closing of several blood drives throughout the area, as well as cancellations of individual donation appointments. But Community Blood Center executive director David Graham said that while staff prepared for the worst, the tamer weather was a relief.

The center estimates it lost out on the opportunity to collect 500 units of blood — that’s equal to a day’s typical supply. Community Blood Center on Monday issued an emergency blood shortage, one of several calls for more donations for all blood types this winter, a time when donations are lower anyway because of the holiday season and winter illnesses.

“If the weather had been as projected I think our collections would have been closer to 800 to 1,000 units lost,” said Graham, who pointed out that the center still collected more donations than it expected for a weekend with inclement weather. “It’s a nice surprise for us in the blood business because we collected more than we thought.”

Graham said the organization is looking for potential donors to take advantage of community blood drives in the next week in order to make up for the shortfall.

Gary Lezak, chief meteorologist for KSHB-TV 41 Action News, had been maintaining since Thursday that Kansas City would not see the amount of ice being roundly predicted elsewhere, that Kansas City would, as it did, remain dry during the day on Friday with minimal ice on Friday night and dry on Saturday.

“When you are forecasting the weather two, three days out — when you’re forecasting the future, in general — there’s always challenges and things can change,” Lezak said Tuesday. “So was there a possibility of a major ice storm in Kansas City? Yes. But that possibility was very low.”

Lezak said he could not speculate on how the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel and others interpreted their data or created their forecasts. He said different weather forecasting models were making different predictions. He thinks Kansas City’s over-forecast might have resulted from a greater reliance on a European forecast model.

He said that he thought it was premature for the Missouri governor’s office on Thursday to declare a state of emergency so early when, certainly by Saturday, it was becoming apparent the storm would not be as bad as was being predicted, and certainly not in the Kansas City area.

“If they could have waited, by Saturday, they would have realized it’s not happening,” Lezak said. As for the preparations made by the Missouri and Kansas departments of transportation, he said, “Once the governor of Missouri comes out his statement, it’s hard to pull back.”

Leighton thinks people will not use a single over-forecast for one part of the state as reason to become cynical.

“On a large scale, 99 percent of people will continue to heed advice when it comes to weather, even though the last event didn’t work out,” he said. “We don’t want to make a habit of over-forecasting events.

“We don’t want to be sitting there saying, ‘Oh well, we forecast something really bad and thankfully it didn’t happen.’ If you do that over and over again, you will get a cry-wolf type of syndrome. I think, if you make a habit of it, it becomes a problem.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler