The question some were asking following Saturday’s storm was this: How could meteorologists have gotten it so wrong?
The answer, from the National Weather Service in Seattle: It’s complicated.
Saturday night’s big blowout failed to materialize in much of the South Sound, and staff at the weather service office said they’d been fielding plenty of questions about how the whole scenario went down.
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What started as a typhoon over the Pacific Ocean appeared to be packing a punch — and headed our way just a few days ago.
“Our No. 1 job is protection of life and property,” meteorologist Dustin Guy said. “That’s our main mission.”
So when the storm appeared ominous, the weather service posted warnings so that the public could be prepared for a big weather event. Early predictions called for the weekend storm to be one of the most serious in the Puget Sound area since the Hanukkah Eve storm of December 2006.
What happened instead: The storm’s low pressure turned out to be less intense than predicted, and the storm veered just to the northwest of Cape Flattery, on the Olympic Peninsula.
That meant some wind gusts, clocked at 53 mph in the Gig Harbor area and 47 mph at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, but no widespread gale-force winds.
Key Peninsula Fire Chief Guy Allen wrote on the department’s Facebook page Sunday morning: “Fortunately the storms this week did not cause significant damage although we did have one report of a tree into a residence. Hopefully everyone has their power back on by now.”
Battalion Chief Bill Sawaya said a family was displaced when the tree fell into the home about 3 or 4 p.m. Saturday, near Springfield Drive Northwest and 78th Avenue Court Northwest. No one was injured.
Tacoma Public Utilities reported at one point that 11,000 people had lost power, but by Sunday morning it looked like their crews and Puget Sound Energy had restored power to all but a few customers in Pierce County. And Peninsula Light Company said about 8 p.m. Saturday that all its outages had been fixed.
Pierce County reported that road crews responded Saturday to three downed trees and 22 places where water had covered the road.
The worst of the storm in Thurston County landed Saturday afternoon, bringing rain and sustained winds of 20 to 35 miles per hour, followed by a peak gust in the Olympia area of 46 miles per hour at 3:30 p.m., said Jay Neher with the National Weather Service.
That resulted in some downed trees and power outages in the “hundreds,” according to Puget Sound Energy data. A PSE spokesperson could not be reached Sunday, but the utility’s outage map showed a few scattered outages left in Olympia and southern Thurston County.
Although the storm didn’t land quite as hard as expected, it brought more rain to add to an already extremely wet month. The typical accumulation through mid-October is 1.65 inches for the Olympia area, but so far through Saturday the area has received more than six inches of rain.
The National Weather Service, likely under fire for its forecast, posted a response on its Facebook page Sunday.
“We hope that you do not ignore future warnings or distrust our forecasts because of this event,” the post reads. “Although weather models, the technology, and the science are constantly improving, there is still an aspect of unpredictability in weather forecasting. Sometimes, Mother Nature simply does not want to cooperate with the forecast.”
Metro Parks Tacoma was assessing storm damage Sunday. The inner loop road at Point Defiance Park was expected to open by 11 a.m., but the park’s outer loop road was still being checked for fallen trees and tree damage, according to the parks website. Trails remained closed Sunday afternoon at Point Defiance and at the Tacoma Nature Center until parks crews could clear them of debris.
Otherwise there were no reports of injuries or significant damage in Pierce County as a result of the storm, according to Tacoma Fire and West Pierce Fire & Rescue.
Gig Harbor Fire & Rescue spokeswoman Nanette Tatom said the same for her agency, noting that she thought a fallen tree briefly blocked a road about 4:30 p.m. Saturday near Rosedale Street Northwest and 80th Street Northwest.
University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass said on his blog Sunday morning that the discrepancy between the storm residents expected and the one they got had to do with communication.
“Local meteorologists warned of the worst case situation, but failed to communicate the uncertainty of the prediction,” he wrote.
Weather Service meteorologist Guy explained: “When systems are developing, they are passing over the Pacific Ocean. It’s not a data-rich environment.”
A network of buoys hundreds of miles out in the ocean feeds some data to the forecasters, but only if the storm passes near them.
Satellite images provide information as well, Guy said, but there are limitations. Those images “don’t tell you what is happening on the surface,” he said. “And they are not always available because of the thickness of the cloud cover.”
The storm traveled thousands of miles over the ocean, feeding constantly changing information to forecasters.
“That’s where the human factor comes in,” Guy said.
Forecasters apply the best science and try to interpret the data for the public. But subtle shifts in the storm pattern can mean a big difference in how a major storm plays out compared to what was forecast.
“It’s better to be prepared and have the storm not be as severe than to be underinformed and be taken by surprise,” he said. “The good news is that people got the message and were prepared.”
On Sunday, forecasters were calling for a return to more typical fall weather, with showers continuing off and on over the next couple of days.
Guy said the forecast called for “unsettled” weather patterns but not nonstop rain. Overnight lows of near 50 degrees were in the forecast Sunday, while highs were forecast in the mid- to upper 50s for Monday.
Staff writers Rolf Boone and Kenny Ocker contributed to this report.