Montana’s unique weather challenges and things experts want residents to know
Montana is rough country. It presents unique challenges to residents and emergency workers. Montanans are, by nature, tough and capable people; yet, some weather hazards surpass anyone’s capabilities. While many residents pride themselves on being prepared for whatever nature throws at them, it can be difficult for the National Weather Service (NWS) and emergency personnel to convey the seriousness of hazardous weather events like flooding, ice jams and blizzards to the populace. This is particularly true when rugged individualism and Montana toughness come into play.
So, the National Weather Service teamed-up with Gallatin County Emergency Management and a panel of experts to discuss specific challenges of weather and messaging with the media on Wednesday, May 8, at the Gallatin County Coordination Center for the National Integrated Warning Team Workshop. This was only the second meeting of its kind in Montana and the first ever in Gallatin County. The goal is to break barriers down in order to communicate effectively with media – to get accurate information to the public.
Emphasizing unique challenges in Montana, Arin Peters, senior service hydrologist with the NWS, pointed-out that Montana has seen more than 1,800 ice jam events. The Treasure State has the “highest number of reported ice jams in the lower 48 and the highest number of ice jam related deaths in the lower 48.” While two-thirds of ice jams occur in February and March, they have happened from October all the way until June.
It’s such a unique threat that the USGS has been working on a product to develop an ice jam database – which is not yet available to the public.
“We’re either a week away from a drought or a flood at any point in Montana,” Peters also said.
Jim Brusda, lead meteorologist for the NWS, spoke to flooding. There have been six flooding fatalities in Montana in the last eight years, with only one fatality occurring in the last seven years.
Still, Brusda said flooding has a big impact in the state. The Missouri River rose 15 feet in a single day to flood Landusky, Mont., earlier this year.
“With snowmelt, you can have flooding anywhere. Water can jam-up anywhere,” he said. “The problem is conveying the message.”
Of the 18 flood fatalities this year, nine occurred from people driving around barricades, he said.
“The barricades are there for your safety. You don’t know what got washed out overnight. Contamination of the water is a concern, too,” he said.
Messaging again becomes a concern when the NWS is confident that flooding is going to happen – significant rain on top of snowmelt, for example – but there is a delay of precipitation after the forecast. Some residents might ignore evacuation requests by noting before they go to sleep, “Well, the rain didn’t fall by 9 p.m., so it’s not going to happen.” There can be a delay, but when evacuations are encouraged – meteorologists are operating with a level of certainty that something serious will happen.
NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist Megan Syner spoke to how the NWS and media can relay information to the public in a way that will compel action.
“Not just telling people what’s going to happen, but telling people how it’s going to affect them,” she said.
She spoke of the seven-step process people go through even when faced with emergency situations: perceive, understand, believe, confirm, personalize, decide, act.
If a person gets caught on any of those steps before the decision to act, Syner said they will dismiss the warning.