Turnpike chief: Forecast suggested 'manageable' snow

Tractor-trailers line up to enter the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the Bedford interchange during the snowstorm.

HARRISBURG - As blizzard conditions began to strand motorists for what would become 24 hours of icy discomfort last month, Pennsylvania Turnpike managers were hampered because they relied on a single afternoon weather forecast that understated the severity of the storm, they said Tuesday.

Testifying before a state Senate committee, Turnpike Commission Chairman Sean Logan said the officials relied on a Jan. 22 midafternoon advisory from AccuWeather Inc., its contracted forecasting service, that called for what seemed a "manageable range" of snow in south central Pennsylvania.

"In that area - New Stanton, Somerset, Bedford - they were calling for six, eight inches," Logan said. "Those folks know how to handle that."

The blizzard, which for days had been forecast to impact one-fifth of the nation's population, pounded the region. Around 7:40 p.m. Jan. 22, several tractor-trailers jackknifed, starting the westbound bottleneck that ultimately stranded busloads of college athletes, abortion protesters, truckers, and motorists. Not until 9:45 that night, Logan said, did the turnpike get its next weather-service advisory, one that upped predictions to a foot or two of snow.

The disclosure emerged near the end of a second legislative hearing into the state's response to the storm that left 60 buses, 100 cars, and 400 commercial vehicles stranded for nearly a day on an 11-mile stretch with no exits between Bedford and Somerset.

"When it came faster, stronger - again, we don't have this - the next forecast that we received, it was 9:45," Logan told Sen. John Rafferty Jr. (R., Montgomery), chair of the Transportation Committee. "So there's a 61/2-hour gap between the forecasts."

Logan insisted he was "not pointing the finger" or assigning blame. But he did say the turnpike was considering, as part of its review, a change in its contract with AccuWeather to improve reporting requirements.

In an interview, AccuWeather CEO Barry Lee Myers said that the State College, Pa.-based service sent alerts at 3:15 and 9:45 p.m. as part of a regular schedule, but that updates were available any time on request. He said the 3:15 forecast called for six to 12 inches of snow in the area, but also contained strong language warning of high winds and "blizzard, white-out" conditions. The 9:45 alert contained a revised forecast of one to two feet.

"You cannot have winds like that and snow like that [without] conditions like that," Myers said.

Turnpike officials have conceded mistakes in their response, including waiting too long to ban trucks and reduce speed limits. Last week, they pledged to next month begin testing removable median barriers, which could have helped police or rescue personnel to unclog the bottleneck.

Rafferty called for the hearing, just as he did two years earlier, when icy conditions on the turnpike near Willow Grove left motorists trapped in their cars for around eight hours.

The tone of questioning Tuesday was respectful, as senators expressed their gratitude for the herculean effort staged in the latest incident to tow the tractor-trailers from a construction cattle chute that had no shoulders. State police also ordered that sections of concrete medians be removed, a full day later, to help take vehicles out of the westbound lanes.

But Rafferty also wondered how the forecast data available to the turnpike could have so significantly undersold the storm, even as it was just a few hours from bearing down on the commonwealth.

"On TV in my area," Rafferty said, "at that time of day, they were saying, 'We now predict over 20 inches.' "

In interviews after the hearing, turnpike officials said they had meteorological information about the storm except what they got from AccuWeather. "Our bread and butter has always been AccuWeather," turnpike chief executive Mark P. Compton said.

Turnpike chief operating officer Craig Shuey said AccuWeather was not alone in projecting less snow, even as late as the afternoon of Jan. 22. "What we saw was, a variety of local guys were saying similar information," he said.

Tony Martin, meteorologist at WJAC-TV in Johnstown, disputed that. He said his station had been posting maps as early as the morning of Jan. 22 calling for 16 to 24 inches in the region. "That cat was out of the bag probably" on Jan. 20, Martin said.

He also said a WJAC reporter in Somerset had already measured five to six inches of snow on the ground by 6 p.m. Jan. 22.

Myers, the AccuWeather executive, said turnpike officials could have consulted with the firm's meteorologists at any time.

"I don't know what else would have caused them to make a different decision," he said. "They probably did the best they could do. I think we did as best as we could do.

"Sometimes Mother Nature wins."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com215-854-2431 @Panaritism

Staff writer Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article.