A week ago, all of Colorado was hit with a Category-2 cyclone named Ulmer only later in the evening after several tragic events already occurred. For those of you unfamiliar with weather terms, a cyclone is a hurricane that forms in the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic. They were calling it a “bomb cyclone” here – a reference that a lot of folks considered to be a dramatic description for what seemed to be a normal snow storm for the Denver area. In fact, the term was generated from the technical term “bombogenesis”: a weather condition known to cause significant damage due to extreme and quick barometric pressure drops.
Ulmer was no joke. Unfortunately, too many people thought this storm wasn’t even worth knowing about it or considering. I followed the storm progression for the two days prior with an unexpected familiarity with the weather tracking I’ve done elsewhere. Having spent about two-thirds of my life all over the state of Florida, I’m used to the almost year-round hurricane season that stresses out populations across a massive expanse of land. There, hurricanes usually form far off the eastern coast in the Atlantic Ocean. Due to conflicting pressure systems and temperature changes in the water, we never quite know where the hurricane is going to land. Speaking of land, once a hurricane hits the coast, we can’t predict its path of destruction nor whether it will strengthen or weaken as it moves. We’ve seen hurricanes pass us by in southeast Florida, cross the entire state, and then decimate South Carolina. We’ve experienced hurricanes that zig-zag across the state, hit one area before strengthening again to damage another area ten hours away. Tropical storms because Category 1…2…3…4…5 hurricanes in a matter of hours. Because we experience this for the majority of the year – year after year – we know to at least pay attention to the news.
I can’t say the same for the people of Colorado. As proud as you are to be natives, or to have spent decades settled in this state, y’all don’t seem to know much about the weather systems that affect your local experience. Too many of you have concluded that meteorologists can’t be trusted. Ignorance plays a disappointing role – as weather here can be impacted by a multitude of factors none which have anything to do with trusting your local weather person.
Due to geographical and environmental factors such as the Palmer Divide, the Polar Vortex in Canada, the Rocky Mountains, as well as the drastic altitude changes from the mountains all the way to the Eastern Plains, Denver and the surrounding cities experience unpredictable weather patterns. These factors cause beautiful, warm days in the middle of winter, sweater weather on summer nights, snow that falls and melts in a single day, and thunderstorm possibilities any afternoon from spring to fall. Despite the lack of reliable forecasting available to those who live in Colorado, especially in the Denver-area, Coloradians can prepare by understanding how weather works and what makes this area unique. If that bores you to tears, fine. I am shocked to see so many people unwilling to follow the weather entirely, as though the “unknowable” weather here disables the functionality of your smart phones. Download a darn weather app and allow it to alert you about severe weather. Come on, guys.
Despite all this damn technology at our fingertips, most everyone I spoke to on Tuesday (the day before the storm) was completely unaware that anything besides a little snow was to be expected. This wasn’t the first time I noticed that you Coloradians can be patronizing af about your state even when you know less about it than an East-coast girl who hasn’t even made it to her two-year mark here. Some of you should be ashamed – and I’m not going to apologize for saying so.
That afternoon, many people were still sort of laughing at me and arguing that it wasn’t even going to snow that much. Great, I’m so glad everyone is schooled on the definition of a blizzard. It seemed like no one understood the possible damage of a storm with high-mileage wind tossing heavy snow about here and there to the point of what was being predicted to be a state-wide “white-out”. I don’t care if only a few inches of snow are falling; no one with non-essential work should have thought it safe to drive in this type of storm.
As the evening news hit on Tuesday, Public schools and Colorado State University decided they would close campuses. Flights began to get canceled. Businesses posted on Facebook that they would close early on Wednesday or wouldn’t open at all. NWS places Colorado on a blizzard warning. The storm had an eye and CAT-2 winds. We give these storms names on the east coast due to the extensive damage they cause, and we don’t blow them off because only a few inches of rain are expected to accompany them. Gosh, Colorado, step up your game.
But, okay, I get it – Denverites especially are used to the crying-wolf hounds about expected snowfalls and then are greeted with a pleasant, sunny day instead. Or, the weather people tell us to expect several inches to stick and we are lucky to see some cute little snowflakes in our hair. I get it: The snow hardly ever gets bad here. What’s the point of even worrying about a snow day when three-hundred days of the year bring sunshine? Y’all are jaded by now – but at what point does this stop being an excuse for your ignorance?
While you may have avoided any issues on Wednesday other than some slipping and sliding in your car during your commute, your luck does not mean Ulmer was a measly snow storm. Since there were still many, many folks who didn’t seem to consider a CAT-2 cyclone a problem, many businesses remained open and required their employees to come in. Hardly anyone considered the fact that most employees in the Denver area commute from one side of Colorado to another and would have to traverse dangerous conditions.
I feel bad for the people who would have chosen to stay home but were probably afraid to lose their jobs if they didn’t. My heart aches for people who shook in fear and loaded emergency kits into their cars at 6 am to commute to work, wondering, will I make it home later? And what about all of the essential employees like police officers, fire fighters, and other emergency workers who risked their lives Wednesday because so many people either chose to go to work when they shouldn’t have or didn’t have a choice about it in the first place? For the family of the officer who lost his life while out trying to help others, there will never be a reason good enough for our blasé attitudes. This entire situation could have been handled differently if Coloradians would pay a little more attention to the state they claim to own.
So let me tell you what really happened because of this silly nothing of a storm:
- In the early AM hours, the rain started to fall and freeze over the roads. As dawn approached, snow began to fall and create a layer over the iced roads – making the dangerous conditions practically invisible to drivers.
- By 7 AM, DIA had cancelled over a 1000 flights, a car had run off the road into a ditch, and dangerous avalanches caused mountain roads to close.
- By 8 AM, a vehicle had overturned on i-70 blocking two lanes and an off-ramp. US-6/6th Ave became blocked after a car crash. A semi-truck rolled off the interstate.
- Prior to 10 AM, a crash occurs just south of the Denver Tech Center area, causing part of i-25 to shut down.
- Prior to 11 AM, multiple crashes have been reported and power lines are on fire. The route to Boulder from Denver, US 36 shuts down from accidents. North of Denver in Larimer county, a passenger bus slides off i-25. Multiple crashes cause more of i-25 to shut down south of Denver. There’s no visibility on the roads in Douglas county.
- Prior to 12 PM, wind gusts of 75 miles an hour are seen at DIA. South i-25 completely shuts down south of Denver with no ETA for opening. Two semi-trucks become forked in an accident causing a 20-car pile up. A rescue fire truck becomes stuck and needs rescuing itself. Just west of the foothills on i-70 westbound closes after several accidents and there are multiple vehicles stuck out there in the storm. An SUV and and a semi collide on C-470. A state trooper by the name of Daniel Groves is hit on i-76 and killed immediately after a car lost control. There is now no visibility on the roads in downtown Denver.
- By 12 PM, HWY 85 closes due to a jackknifed semi. On South i-25, the last of the victims of the 20-car pile-up are pulled from the wreckage with multiple injuries reported and two critical patients. Multiple fire trucks and an EMS ambulance get stuck in the snow and can’t transport patients to the hospital. A serious injury-causing crash involving multiple vehicles shuts down HWY 56. A 40-car crash in Douglas county occurs near i-25. Most highways outside Denver have been shut down. Stop lights aren’t working in Denver. One-hundred thousand people are without power in the Denver metro area. All DIA flights cancelled and people are stuck on Peña Blvd trying to get to the airport.
- By 1 PM, 200,000 people are without power in Denver metro. Another jackknifed semi-truck closes C-470 westbound. Dozens of slide-offs are reported north of Denver near Greeley and Loveland. Peña Blvd is officially closed. Trees are down in Denver and Aurora blocking roads.
- By 2 PM, the fire department warns not to go out as they will be unable to rescue anyone. They warn that people will have to spend the night in their cars. The National Guard is called when 100 cars are reported stranded in the blizzard on highway 86. Douglas county sends buses on search and rescue missions to bring stranded motorists to emergency shelters.
- By 3:30 pm, there are 110 reported crashes in Denver. The governor calls for a State of Emergency. The city of Lone Tree opens their recreational facility as a drop-off location for rescued motorists who were stranded on roads.
- By 7 PM, 50 stranded vehicles are cleared from Peña Blvd. Denver police are still urging motorists to stay off the roads. About 143,000 people remain without power.
- The morning after the storm, parts of i-25 south of Denver remain closed. More than 125 cars are stranded on the interstate and need to be cleared. Traffic lights are still out around Denver and surrounding areas. The State of Colorado and the National Guard have rescued 75 motorists who were stranded overnight in Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, and El Paso counties. County sheriff departments urge people to stay off the road as drivers continue to create more emergencies while Colorado remains in a State of Emergency. Around 600,000 Coloradians went without power overnight.
What can we learn from this situation, class?