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A storm slammed Quechee last week, but no one told the experts

  • Sean Smith, owner of Smith and Sons Tree and Land Care Services, LLC, saws a tree trunk into pieces as he clears away debris from a property on Marsh Family Road in Quechee, Vt., on Thursday, July 1, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Published: 7/7/2021 9:42:54 PM
Modified: 7/7/2021 9:43:01 PM

QUECHEE — As gusts of 70 to 80 mph snapped and uprooted dozens of trees and rain and hail pelted the village of Quechee last Wednesday, the National Weather Service of Burlington waited for word.

They predicted and sent warning of a severe thunderstorm in the area more than a half-hour before it began, but with no one reporting ground conditions, they were clueless about was happening outside of their radar readings, according to Scott Whittier, Burlington National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist.

Staff started cold-calling places in the area, pulling from a state database they’ve compiled of public works departments, police and fire stations, schools, golf courses and more — anyone who might be able to make reports.

When they saw a map of power outages “light up like a Christmas tree” around Quechee, they knew they were on to something. But it wasn’t until several hours later that they received actual reports of the storm — well past when many of the staff had clocked out, including Whittier, who traveled to Quechee to survey the damage the next day.

Lack of ground truth reporting — information on ground conditions and damage wreaked by storms — is a persistent problem for the Burlington office, and it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. With fewer people commuting to work or moving out and about in general, the Weather Service’s spotters are calling in only when a storm happens to land in their backyard.

Those eyewitness reports are vital to improving the speed and accuracy of the Weather Service’s storm predictions and warnings. When they receive information on the exact location, severity and damage of storms, they are able to compile that data over time, improving their understanding of radar readings and ability to issue timely and precise warnings.

While the Weather Service receives reports or eventually learns of more severe damage like what occurred in Quechee — caused by localized downdrafts within a thunderstorm called wet microbursts — they struggle to track less-severe storms.

Pulse storms — storms that suddenly and briefly increase in the severity — are much more difficult to predict. While much shorter and less severe than other storms, their sudden impact can still cause significant damage, especially when they catch people by surprise. But with fewer people affected, most pulse storms go unreported, according to Whittier.

The Weather Service does not want to overwhelm people with warnings and “cry storm,” Whittier said, so they often have to wait and watch those pulses until right ahead of when they occur before they can give accurate warnings. Whereas they send warnings an average of 16 to 20 minutes before a larger storm, they are often only able to warn people of pulse storms eight to 10 minutes beforehand.

More frequent reporting of pulse storms could greatly improve the National Weather Service’s ability to predict them and warn people. Detailed information of ground conditions could also help them predict weather they can’t see on their radar, like lightning, according to Whittier.

Reporting is especially vital in areas like Quechee, which rests in a partial radar blind spot. The Green Mountains block the National Weather Service radar in Colchester, Vt., from reaching the lower elevations of the eastern region of the state, which are crucial for predicting storm severity and tornadoes. The National Weather Service has to rely instead on the much higher elevation bands that the radar can actually reach, making prediction much more difficult.

The National Weather Service has long had trouble with reporting throughout Vermont, even before the pandemic. Mountains and trees block visibility on much of the horizon, meaning fewer people are able to see and report storms. Rain also shrouds weather events like tornadoes; it’s often impossible to tell whether a tornado has passed through an area until the Weather Service or other agencies can survey the damage.

Vermont’s rural landscape also means that storms affect fewer people, shrinking the pool of possible reporters.

Many communities also lack local law enforcement or fire stations of their own or other agencies that might otherwise send information to the National Weather Service, and Whittier said the ruggedness of Vermont communities means many people don’t report storms even when they do affect them.

“We’re hearty Vermonters,” Whittier said. “If it’s a large branch, as long as there’s no power outages or it didn’t hurt anybody, they cut it up and there’s firewood for the season.”

Even as reporting rates across the state decrease, that data is becoming more important. Whittier predicts that climate change will make storms like the one in Quechee much more common and more severe.

About 350 to 400 Vermonters actively participate in the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN program, which trains people to report on storm conditions — but Whittier encourages everyone to report storms they witness on the National Weather Service’s website, including tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, frequent lightning, hail, heavy rain, flooding, heavy snow, ice storms and freezing rain.

The Weather Service seeks reports of storms with 50 to 60 mph winds or greater. Such winds will uproot trees or cause them to fall on power lines, break off branches of 3 feet in diameter or greater, blow away large event tents, tear shingles off of roofs or cause other structural damage. But Whittier says even reports of less severe conditions are helpful by telling them where a storm didn’t go.

“I’m not going to shy away from any reports,” Whittier said.

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