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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 07/28/2010

Were you caught off-guard by Sunday's storms?

By Jason Samenow

* Two hot & humid days: Full Forecast | NatCast *

Following Andrew's post taking an up-close look at Sunday's violent thunderstorms, there was a lot of chatter yesterday about the amount of warning people had. The storms surely came and went quickly (I was blogging and tweeting, and it was tough to keep up), but then again, the National Weather Service issued a Severe Thunderstorm Watch at 1:50 p.m. -- more than 70 minutes before the storms reached the area. Warnings were issued a good 20 minutes before the first drop of rain in most spots.

But for those outside and/or away from television or digital communication devices, the combination of the storm's swift arrival, power and fury was undoubtedly surprising, if not startling.

Irrespective of "if" you were caught off-guard, there's also the question, should you have been caught off guard? Many readers offered their opinion yesterday...

Here are some highlights:

@SierraSun: Sorry, there is no way anyone should have been caught by surprise by this storm. Weather forecasters were saying for several days prior that the cold front coming in could bring severe weather and that it could be bad because of the extreme heat. By morning on Sunday, they said it would hit between 2pm and 3pm. They were absolutely on target with this one and what it shows is that people are clueless and need to start paying closer attention during periods of extreme weather. If you need help, there are multiple ways to get text messages sent to your phones for weather reports and emergency warnings.

@FIREDRAGON47: These storms moved very fast. And most people are not weather junkies like the crowd on this blog. Folks probably listened to a weather forecast Sunday morning for "storms likely this afternoon & this evening". They thought that they'd be able to see it coming, get out of the pool, pack up the picnic & get home with time to spare.

@tcfenstermaker: No offense weather geeks, but not being one myself, I wouldn't have paid much attention to a "severe thunderstorm warning" since they are a near daily occurrence in the summer.

@MKadyman: If you are hiking on Sugarloaf Mountain I can understand why you wouldn't see a severe thunderstorm approaching. But anywhere else? Why would it be a surprise? Maybe I am weird because I look at the sky every so often. I am guessing that there must be people who cannot recognize a huge black cloud mass building up in the northwest sky. That means thunderstorm folks.

So what do you think? Are excuses for being caught off-guard for Sunday's storm legit? How do you stay ahead of the weather when you're out and about, if at all?

By Jason Samenow  | July 28, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Capital Weather Gang, Thunderstorms  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Forecast: Steaminess returns and thunder chances
Next: Last week: A colorful DC sunset instead of storms


I was not surprised by the actual storms because I had been outside (why, I don't know, given the heat), and saw the clouds building, so I went inside and checked the radar and then ran to the store.

Got home before the rain started or before the wind really started to howl (barely), but it was close. I've seen storms move fast before and be windy, but this was especially fast.

Posted by: oldtimehockey | July 28, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

I knew that there were storms in the forecast, and that some of the storms could potentially be severe. That's a bit different from actually experiencing them, since it seems we do get a fair number of severe WX warnings that never pan out.

Still, the speed of Sunday's storms was astonishing, and although I was outside and saw the build-up and then the howling winds, it was still something of a surprise.

Posted by: ennepe68 | July 28, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

No matter how much warning one has for short brutal storms such as this, there is limited preparation possible, and I get tired of people faulting XXXX for not providing enough warning. I heard the initial warning on radio, and checked CWG because I guessed (correctly) that Fairfax had been accidentally omitted from that broadcast.
However, the real safeguards are longterm (try to avoid having vulnerable trees where they can smash your house; try to avoid parking your car in the path of same) and very shortterm (watch the sky, silly, and if you see that it's darkening fast and the trees are starting to go horizontal or in circles, as mine did, that's the time to be in a safe place in your home, and probably NOT to head out in the car). Everyone (not just weather geeks) needs to understand that our summer weather is inherently unstable much of the time, and if they go out to golf, or out on the water, on a day when a chance of storms is forecast, they need to be prepared to watch the sky and head for safety at the first sign of an impending storm.

Posted by: fsd50 | July 28, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I credit Capital Weather Gang for predicting on about Thursday a "cool front" coming through on Sunday. Of course a cold front coming through on a hot muggy summer afternoon will produce thunderstorms.

Posted by: psilosome | July 28, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

The loss of life & property from this storm is very sad. Not all bad t-storms gives a hour's notice with thunder & slowly building black clouds.
Several posters recently mentioned phone options that will automatically notify a person if there is a severe weather alert. Sounds like a GREAT idea.
You shouldn't have to spend the rest of the summer obsessively scanning the sky or scrutinizing radar to be safe...unless you have an interest in that sort of thing.

Posted by: FIREDRAGON47 | July 28, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I was online listening to a lengthy internet stream, checking mosaic and other radar sites, and also paying attention to CWG posts. It was obvious by the time the front moved into NW Maryland that there was a high potential for all hell to break loose in our region.

But based on how warnings were posted, I still say the NWS was delinquent in alerting people to the potential severity of this storm. They've got all these models, so use them. If they cry wolf once in a while, better to have people kvetch about an unnecessary warning than casualties that might have been averted (granted, not all people pay heed to warnings... but the death of that little boy hit by a tree limb is one fatality that might have been avoided).

I don't buy into the argument that front moved so fast there wasn't time to adequately alert people. It moved quickly from the time it swept into western Pa. Tornado warnings were posted in the York/Lancaster area before the storm hit here. Fewer excuses and more alert forecasting by the NWS might serve us all better in the future.

Finally, CWG was very much on top of this developing storm. They had a good idea of what was coming and said so. CWG posters north and west of here were also helpful in their reports.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | July 28, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

I heard very loud gusts of wind, which alerted me to the coming storm.

Posted by: Langway4Eva | July 28, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I was in Cleveland this past weekend and missed the whole thing (bummer!)

I was on the lookout for storms on my way back on Sunday, because they had some nasty storms just south of Cleveland the night before - they showed on the local news an uprooted tree that broke thru the sound-block barrier on the highway, and I drove past this on my travels. There were showers Sunday morning for at least a couple of hours too - just regular rain showers, though.

I had pretty clear skies for the 7+ hour drive home and was informed by my roommate how nasty the storms here had been.

Posted by: MKoehl | July 28, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

No, it was not a surprise. We were warned on the news. I came out of Best Buy at Tysons, saw the dark clouds heading towards VA, but in a strange arrangement, darker and lighter and that was a sure sign of trouble. So I stepped on the accelerator, and barreled home, drove into the garage, closed the door and it started. Why do people not listen??

Posted by: jeanlucca | July 28, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

@JerryFloyd1: your expectations are way out of balance with the limits of predictability. If you have a line of intense thunderstorms, you have no way to know exactly how it will evolve over the next 2 hours. Based on your idea, the NWS would have issued a warning for the entire corridor from Fredericksburg up to the MD/PA border way in advance. The severe weather was concentrated in a small corridor within that big region, so most of that warning would have been a bust. If you want to blanket large areas with warnings that don't verify, watch how many people tune them out completely.
As CWG notes, they were issuing the warnings with about 20 minutes lead time and adding enhanced wording that these were particularly dangerous storms. They handled it as well as current knowledge of storms and forecasting tools allow.

Posted by: foul_throw | July 28, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

OK I am a weather geek and was not at all caught off guard. Talking to a friend who was at the pool with her kids and not tuned into the weather, she was not caught off guard either. She saw the sky getting dark in the distance. As she said, before any whistle was blown, they were packed up and gone. Which brings me to aother point. If your gut feeling says, "Hey that looks nasty. I need to get inside." don't wait for a whistle or a NWS warning. Just go.

Posted by: SPS1 | July 28, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

I was at home but with no TV or radio on when the gusts first started swirling about. My first clue was my cat running inside in fright.

I did have the computer on though and immediately clicked on the radar loops, at which point my DSL went out.

By the time I realized I had no internet, the storm was upon us here.

Posted by: Georgetwoner | July 28, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Some thunderstorms will always have "surprises", convection is probably the most difficult thing to predict for any given location beforehand when it comes to weather.

I disagree on lead times, or lack thereof. Perhaps they were lesser in this area than to the west, but I remember thinking the NWS was warning way ahead of the line. Storms often speed up a little coming out of the hills as well.

I do think maybe there needs to be a better portrayal of the true severity of a severe storm. This yr we've seen plenty of very marginal storms warned, and then the follow-on media hype etc that goes with them. Perhaps some pay less attention to the real deal due to that. That said, Sunday was not really a "classic" widespread severe setup... and it did not really hit that large of an area with its worst.

I don't foresee an advance in forecasting anywhere around the corner that would keep storm deaths and such from ever happening. CWG or others could tell everyone to stay inside because there is a storm chance and probably few would listen, or the storms would "bust" and folks would wonder why they wasted a day.

Posted by: Ian-CapitalWeatherGang | July 28, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I was driving home (to Silver Spring) from a friend's and saw the skies go dark like it was going to storm. I didn't think much of it until I got home and saw my sister, in Rockville, left me a text about how bad it really was. Just a few minutes later, I was dashing outside to rescue my potted plants from a very sudden deluge of rain and wind. No, not a lot of warning for my part, but I was away from the Internet and didn't have my radio on during the pre-storm period.

Posted by: SilverySpringlike | July 28, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

I read the warning for just NE of my area that said the storm had a history of strong winds in WV. So I went home (about 3 miles) and secured what I could. The wind rose surprisingly quickly but out of the north and I live on the south side of the hill so it wasn't that bad. The gust front was clearly visible on radar. Also the NWS put up a tornado warning for Montgomery county.

One odd thing I noticed on Sunday morning was that we had a few cumulus clouds that were fast moving for this time of year (I timed them at 40mph in my car). Seems like that might have provided some warning also.

Posted by: eric654 | July 28, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

What was surprising was the speed of this line of storms.

Normally a line of storms moving this fast is typical of late spring [cf. June 4, 2008] but NOT of mid-to late summer. Generally at this time of year, we're expecting slower, though occasionally violent storms from the west, southwest or northwest, or the occasional tropical downpour from the south or southeast [actually more likely during the August/September Cape Verde hurricane season]. We don't expect these fast-moving line squalls from the west or northwest until approaching winter begins bringing us fast-moving cold fronts around mid-to late Septermber.

BTW Tom Skilling is being delayed-- instead WGN is bringing us a lot of prattle on the Blagojevich trial...let's be done with the Illinois politics & get back to Midwestern weather!!!

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 28, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

If I had planned to be outside (hiking, biking, swimming, etc.), of course I would have checked the weather more closely beforehand and kept an eye out. But I was just hanging out (indoors) with a friend, then we headed out for a late lunch. I knew there was a chance of storms at some time in the day, but that's typical in the summer here and it usually doesn't pan out, or doesn't amount to much. We had just a couple of minutes' warning, when we saw a dark part of the sky as we walked into a Starbucks. The view was mostly obstructed by trees, so it didn't look as bad as it turned out to be. Five minutes earlier or later, and we would have been driving (maybe even on the street where we later encountered a huge fallen tree).

Posted by: Janine1 | July 28, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Skilling finally came on ca. 15 minutes late! The severe weather seems to be moving out of Chicago and towards Cincinnati overnight. Milwaukee and Holy Hill, WI just NW of MKE have had 10.25+" of rain thus far during July.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 28, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

It wasn't 'til the storm was closing in that the NWS raised the precip probability from 40% to 80%. This in itself was a serious miscalculation.

Storm warnings aren't going to prevent all deaths, because some people aren't going heed the warnings or know about them. But they can help.

What use are the much-vaunted models if they can't predict a severe weather event such as the one that occured on Sunday?

Once that squall passed through Latrobe, Pa. in the late a.m., if was obvious DC was going to get plastered. Blown forecast. Period.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | July 28, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

if Mr. Floyd wants to argue about the probability of precip, go for it. it was probably too low, but the surface winds here had turned to westerly which is often unfavorable for widespread precip in the DC area. bottom line: the precip probability is unrelated to severe weather potential.

the models did exactly what they should be doing. they indicated an environment over the mid-Atlantic that was favorable for severe thunderstorms, and the Storm Prediction Center highlighted this area for a threat and then issued the severe thunderstorm watch several hours prior to the storms arriving. They can't tell you that Montgomery County will get very damaging winds while Howard County will get largely spared, which is exactly what happened.

The local NWS office did exactly what they should do. They issued warnings in advance of the severe parts of the squall line with enhanced wording. They gave extra lead time to the local waters. The weather in Latrobe 4 hours earlier is irrelevant to the precise details you're claiming are possible to predict.

Posted by: foul_throw | July 28, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I was prepared, but only because I follow the weather. The average Joe could not possibly have seen that coming in Gaithersburg where I live. I was at the local pool with my 5 year old, and while the skies were darking in the distance, it wasn't until literally the last 15 minutes before it hit that you could see it was going to be bad. We heard the first thunder (our cue to exit the pool) at 3:10 pm and the gust front hit less than 5 minutes later. I know the storm was going 60 mph, but where were the text warnings, etc? I got those on my blackberry a half hour after the damage was done. Looking at your radar loop, it should've been obvious to NWS what was about to happen at least an hour before that...

Posted by: curtmccormick | July 28, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

The storm missed me like all the others since early June, so I wasn't surpised. I would b surpised if I did get a storm.

Posted by: VaTechBob | July 28, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

One thing I've noticed about the text alerts is that they are often much so that I sometimes get the alert after the storm has blown through. That doesn't mean that the NWS issued the warning late, it just means that something's not working right with the app or the cell service. Obviously that's a pretty big problem, but it's one that the NWS can't really do much about.

Posted by: WxManMike | July 29, 2010 1:10 AM | Report abuse

I guess I am a bit more in tune with the weather having spent so much time on the water. We knew storms were in the forcast, so I had a radio tuned to catch the weather broadcast. Additionally, I kept watching the sky. Once we got the warning showing a cell "40 miles northwest of National Airport moving east at 45 miles per hour", we made the decision to head for the dock and were tied up, enjoying a beer when the squall came through. We had about 10 minutes to spare in getting set up. Normally I take forecasts with a grain of salt, but seeing the sky darken, the winds shift and die, and the sudden increase in humidity, all were great predictors of what was to come. On top of the fact the the barometer on the boat fell pretty rapidly. So in the end, I was surprised with the speed of the storm (used to these more on Lake Erie and such,) I can honestly say that the weater forecast was right on for this storm. 60 Minutes of warning was amazing considering I have been caught out before with only 5 or 10 minutes to prepare.

Posted by: dan95 | July 29, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

I'm from Jamaica, so am accustomed to paying attention to the weather without CWG and other resources. I expect extreme heat to be broken by violent weather. I've lived in DC most of my life, and where I live now faces south and west, and I can usually see the line of the cold front coming in. So when Sunday afternoon's storms were predicted, I expected something more than our usual 5 p.m. on a 94 degree day thunderstorm. This isn't meteorologically-informed, just skin memory (although CWG is teaching me a lot!). Perhaps I'm wrong more often than not, but keeps me safe.

I've also added in the La Plata and College Park tornadoes of a few years back, which were the first DC tornadoes I'd ever heard of, but by then I'd lived in South Louisiana for four years, so had tornadoes in the memory bank. I tend not to dismiss warnings that turn out to be false alarms, and do the old-fashioned thing of getting off the phone and unplugging the laptops, too.

Posted by: dclioness1 | July 29, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Just had to check in with you guys after hearing news of the terrible storms last weekend, and I have to weigh in on the matter of "being caught off guard."

I think that many in the Washington D.C. area are desensitized by the banality of severe storm watches and warnings in the area over the summer. It was always in my opinion that The National Weather Service was a bit trigger happy with issuing them, and much like the boy who cried wolf, their warnings more often than not, go largely ignored.

People see there's a storm watch or warning, it might rain, there may be a little wind, but other than that, they learn to ignore the watches and warnings. Violent weather like was experienced in the D.C. area last weekend is not common when compared to the number of "severe" thunderstorm warnings/watches that amount to nothing more than a bit of windswept rain for a moment or two.

Even when the watches/warnings are justified, it is only in extreme instances that the storm damage and ferocity is so widespread. The very last major thunderstorm I remember that rocked the D.C. suburbs was when I was back in maybe 1999, or 2000 when a similar weather pattern set up over the area and was displaced by a strong cold front resulting in similar, if not less violent, storms.

Seeing as I only have a rough description, and some area fire/rescue radio chatter I listened to last Sunday after the storms, I can gather how violent the storms actually were, even though I (unfortunately) wasn't there to experience them. Still, it is my opinion that the National Weather Service is to blame, not for failing to do their job, as they provided ample warning before the storm, but for overdoing their job. They've desensitized a population, and the solution to the problem is not so clear cut.

I do think that storms like the one from last Sunday, however, will make people more receptive to severe weather warnings, at least for the rest of this summer.

Posted by: Havoc737 | July 30, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

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