Pulse: Power: Weather Man

In mid-April, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum proposed legislation to “modernize” the National Weather Service by limiting its ability to compete with commercial weather services. (One of the largest, AccuWeather, just happens to be located in State College; the company’s top two officials also just happen to be Santorum contributors.) Reaction to the bill — which could curtail the amount of public information available on the NWS website — was not altogether surprising: Editorial writers, columnists and bloggers acted as if daylight itself would be outlawed. Representative headline: “SANTORUM HATES SUNNY WEATHER.”

Obscured in the hog pile, however, have been AccuWeather’s pointed, if nakedly self-serving, concerns: that the NWS has been too slow in disseminating data on severe weather. In August 2003, for example, the service failed to issue a warning for a flash flood that inundated the Kansas Turnpike — a flood that killed six people. And when Hurricane Gaston caused massive flooding last year, warnings
were “grossly inadequate,” says AccuWeather executive vice president Barry Myers. “The government should focus on protecting lives and property instead of devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to duplicating weather services that commercial weather services can provide.”
All of which raises a tantalizing possibility: Has Santorum, in an effort to deliver pork and protect jobs, stumbled upon a legitimate public safety issue?

Not exactly, say National Weather Service defenders, who point out that given the massive amount of information the NWS provides, such gripes by commercial operators are as picayune as they are financially expedient. (NWS refused to comment because the issue was a matter of pending legislation.) “The National Weather Service’s record speaks for itself,” says Christine Hanson, a spokeswoman for Senator Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who has led the effort to put the kibosh on Santorum’s bill. “During the hurricanes that hit Florida last year, the National Weather Service’s website got nine billion — billion — hits. That seems like proof positive that the National Weather Service does a pretty good job. This whole thing just smacks of desperation.”