Special Report- The December Traffic Debacle of 2007

Source http://mapio.net/pic/p-7230005/  12/13/2007 traffic gridlock

Southern New England people are snow snobs; we admit it. When a part of the country gets snow that isn’t used to it we laugh and crack jokes.  But we won’t tell you about the December Debacle.  We won’t tell you about the time 6-10″ of snow shut the whole region down.  What if I told you that one snowstorm, a fast-moving low-pressure system, caught businesses, school administers, and local government so off guard that it took some folks over 6 hours to get home from work/school?  Commutes that usually lasted 15-30 minutes took hours as the highways came to a standstill in heavy, blinding snow.  When all was said and done fingers pointed every which way with the middle one directed towards the meteorologists.  Was this fair?  Certainly, there was a communication failure between the weather community and the public.  Let’s take a trip back in time to see how the forecasts were in the days leading up to the event.  This is one of the more influential snowstorms in recent memory because it changed the way government, schools, and business plan for winter storms.  Come along with the ghost of snowstorms past to a day when many folks felt like Ebenezer Scrooge.

12/3/2007

(Let’s start 10 days prior to the first snowfall of the season for many in the region.  The storm dropped a general 3-6″ north of the Pike.  Some ice and light snow also fell in Worcester and Boston.)

Realizing how popular a meteorology major can be in wintertime I made the call Sunday night to my friends that we would have no class at Umass-Lowell on Monday, December 3, 2007.  Only 4-5″ ended up falling but the administration canceled class anyway.  The slightly missed forecast likely played a role in the forecast on 12-13 in the minds of the public.  This storm, however, helped the set the table for the next one by providing some snow cover and cooling down the pavement.  As we saw this past Saturday in Southern New England it took awhile for the snow to accumulate on the roadways because they were too warm.  We are also starting here because nothing makes re-visiting past snowstorms sweater than remembering an epic snowball fight between rival freshman dorms while under the influence of Natty Light.

Leitch will tell you they won, but it was their RA’s who ended the fight when we forced them all the way back to their dorm.  The best part of this snowball fight was there were only 1-2 fistfights that broke out.  That’s not bad when you consider that this was a  bunch of 18-19-year-olds who still think they are high school heroes, drinking, and throwing snowballs at one another.

12-10-07

The week of 12-03 to 12-09 was cooler than normal but rather uneventful weatherwise.  Up at Lowell, we got ready for finals as the semester wound down.  The last day of classes was scheduled for 12-13, with finals set to begin on 12-15.   Monday night was one of the better days of the week for first-year meteorology students at UML.  That was the day the program threw us a bone and gave us Atmospheric Science lab which was often the class that kept us interested in becoming meteorologists through all the Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics.  As Dr. Colby started the map discussion we were drawn to the potential of 3 winter weather events that week.  We quickly dismissed one of the events as the models were too warm to support wintry precipitation in Southern New England.  However, a clipper on Thursday and a potentially larger storm that weekend had our attention.

Here is the National Weather Service’s Monday evening area forecast discussion.

BOX AFD 121007 649 PM

Guidance suggested light precipitation amounts in this range.  There was little to suggest a heavy thump of snow would occur at this time.

12-11-07

The forecast officially becomes a headache.  International computer guidance suggests the low will be too far to the south to bring any significant precipitation to most of Southern New England.  The American NAM/GFS, which had a much stronger reputation in 2007, were forecasting the potential for moderate to at times heavy snowfall for much of MA/RI/CT.    The NWS explains this in their 4 PM AFD (roughly 48 hours prior to the start of the storm).

BOX AFD 12/11/07 4 PM

The NWS is pretty clear here that while there is uncertainty, a moderate to heavy snowfall is possible.

12-12-07

The National Weather Service issues a *Heavy Snow Warning* from 1 PM to 11 PM Thursday at 351 PM for locations along and south of the Pike (from Worcester to Providence and east towards Boston).  There is now little uncertainty that a fast-moving, heavy snow event is on its way to Southern New England.

BOX Heavy Snow Warning 12/12/07 351 PM

A Winter Storm Watch is issued for areas north of the Pike.  They will be added to the Heavy Snow Warning at 4 AM the next morning.

12/13/07

By the people are waking up on Thursday AM, meteorologists are advising them of a heavy snow warning from 1 PM until 11 PM with the potential for 1-3″ of snow per hour during the evening commute.

Meteorology

Time makes one forget things.  I always thought this was a “clipper” but it actually had origins in the 4 Corners region of the US.  A piece of energy moved east quickly on 12/12 on met up with a stalled frontal boundary early on 12/13.  This allows for the system to tap into some Gulf of Mexico moisture.

WPC Surface Analysis 12/13/2007 1 AM

Cold, Canadian high pressure is already in place across New England.  That means a system loaded with tropical moisture will be running into a dry, continental Arctic airmass.   By 10 AM the low was beginning to consolidate near the Mid-Atlantic coast.

WPC Surface Analysis 12/13/2007 10 AM

The radar at 10 AM showed the advance of accumulating snow a bit quicker than forecast.

NCEI Radar Archive 12/13/07 10 AM

By 1 PM, the start of the Heavy Snow Warning, the snow was rocking and rolling across most of Southern New England.  This is also the time most schools and businesses let out for the day.

NCEI Radar Archive 12/13/2007 1 PM

The Gridlock

The highways were already snow covered and now rush hour traffic was increasing volume as snow rate was increasing to 1-3″/hr.  According to this Boston.com article, Boston and Newton declined to dismiss school early and as a result, it took students hours to get home from school.  The city of Boston waited until 1 PM to dismiss its non-essential employees and that’s when most businesses did as well.  The state government sent its employees home before noontime.  The result was crowded highways with no way for plows to clear the snow.  It already would have been difficult to keep up with the snowfall given how fast it was falling but with all the volumes on the streets, it was impossible.  (Some foul language in the video below).

There were very few accidents on this day.  The State Police said it was because people were going too slow to cause any serious damage to other vehicles.  The MBTA (which would completely fail during the winter of 2014/15) was overcrowded and unprepared and the early dismissal of workers.  Many people also abandoned their vehicles and tried to take public transportation home.   Many people, like the author of this article, decided to just walk home and leave their vehicle for later.

https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2007/12/14/422349/-

It was no better in Rhode Island as this WPRI report on the 5-year anniversary of the event discusses.  They called it the “December Debacle” which is pretty funny and accurate.

The Aftermath

State and local officials in Boston got into the typical finger-pointing.  Nothing was ever Mayor Menino’s fault but I think he certainly deserved the most blame.

The state did figure it out.  In the 10 years since Southern New England has been hit by storms that have dropped much more snow than this and at faster rates.   In 2013 and 2015, Governor’s Patrick and Baker each issued travel bans before historic blizzards dumped 2-3 feet of snow on the region.  Businesses released workers BEFORE the snow started and therefore the roads were clear and there were little issues.   I attended a panel discussion at the 2008 Southern New England Weather Conference where a mix of NWS meteorologists, MEMA officials, and local TV traffic reporters discussed what exactly happened.  The forecast was highly accurate so why was there a communication breakdown?  Jeff Larson, then at WCVB (Channel 5) as a traffic reporter, reminded everyone of a major news story that broke on 12/13/07.

The Mitchell Report

A lot has changed in 10 years, but remember the Red Sox were still kings or at least co-kings of the town with the Patriots in 2007.   The Sox had just swept the Rockies for their 2nd world title in 4 years (also 90 years).  The big story in the baseball world, however, was the release of former Maine Senator George Mitchell’s report on steroid use in the sport.  There were plenty of reasons to fear this report as a Red Sox fan.  David Ortiz came from the Twins without ever hitting more than 20 HR in a season and now he was one of the best sluggers in all of baseball.  Manny Ramirez drove in 165 RBI in 1999 while with the Cleveland Indians.  We all knew to not trust the sluggers of the late 90’s by that point.

(The late 90’s saved baseball and forever made me a fan of the game.  I think they should all be in the hall of fame.  However, the crusty old guard of baseball writers has a holier than thou attitude about steroid users even as they happily reminisce about players from the days of segregation.  That era should be celebrated in my opinion but the attitude was much different in 2007).

We had a suspicion about Nomar, Varitek, and Pedro as well.  If any of those names appeared on the list we wouldn’t be surprised.  The Boston media had to be prepared for this.  If any of these players were named in the Mitchell Report it would have been major breaking news.  One player that I didn’t think of, perhaps because I barely remembered him a Red Sox, was Roger Clemens.  He was by far the most prominent name in the report (Barry Bonds has already linked to steroids thanks to the Balco scandal and together they are the faces of the steroid era).

The local news covered the snow fairly, but we have had plenty of 6-10 inch snowstorms.  It is not an everyday hall of fame caliber players with ties to Boston are accused of steroids.  The report was released right around noon time.  Maybe it caused just enough distraction to keep people at work an hour longer.

Conclusions

I really don’t think the Mitchell Report played much of a role in the gridlock.  I believe the city of Boston’s decision to release everyone at 1 PM and keep students in school to 3 PM was a primary cause, as well as private business waiting until 1 PM to release everyone.  There are a lot of staggered commutes in and out of the city (some leave at 6 am and come home at 4 PM, others 7 and 5, 7 and 6 etc) so releasing everyone at once was just a huge mistake.  It likely would have been fine if snow rates were not 1-3″ per hour.  But they were.  And the great snow region of Southern New England was brought to a standstill by a 6-10″ quick-hitting storm.   People up here don’t talk about this storm when we stick our noses up at Atlanta or other Southern cities for being ill-prepared for winter weather.  But I remember the day old man winter reminded Boston who their daddy is.

Thanks for reading.  Most sources are linked in the blog.  The NWS AFD’s and Warnings are provided below.

-Zack Green

Sources

NWS AFD’s, Warnings

12/10/07 AFD

12/11/07 AFD

12/12/07 Heavy Snow Warning

 

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