As Ice Storm Pummels U.S., Proposed Storm-Rating Index May Help People Prepare

Improved system may better predict power outages and ice accumulations.

People work to clear a street of debris following an ice storm in Paris, Texas, on December 6.

As the ice storm that pummeled much of the United States on Thursday continues to lock the country in a deep freeze, some areas may be more ready than others to deal with the consequences.

That's because a new index is under development that can be used to categorize expected damage from ice storms, dangerous phenomena that occur when rain freezes on contact with the ground or other surfaces. (Read more about weather and natural disasters.)

Now being tested at 10 of the 122 National Weather Service (NWS) offices throughout the country, the Sperry-Piltz Ice Accumulation (SPIA) Index has potential to give utility companies and emergency-management teams—such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross—more lead time to prepare for power outages and provide shelter to those in need.

Tulsa, Oklahoma; Springfield, Missouri; and Paducah, Kentucky were among the first offices to begin testing the index, and those cities have seen real impacts on preparedness for ice events, such as enabling power companies to order the necessary lumber to replace power poles even before a storm hits.

Seeing the SPIA Index's success, five more cities, including Nashville, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas, began to use the system this year.

Several years in the making, the index integrates already available forecasting data into an algorithm that estimates how much damage an ice storm will produce, especially focusing on damage to the cities' utility systems. It ranks the weather events from 0 (minimal damage) to 5 (catastrophic damage). This data also gives a sense of how long regions can expect their power be out. (Watch video: Weather 101.)

Sidney K. Sperry of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, who co-founded the index with Steven Piltz, chief meteorologist at the NWS office in Tulsa, thinks the index can be used to save lives.

"There was an incident where one of our service areas was hit by a major ice storm, and people were without power for 21 days," Sperry said.

"There was an elderly lady who literally froze to death in her own home because she didn't have power," he added.

"The SPIA index can be used to help utilities prepare" and warn customers that their power may be out for extended periods.