Storm Clouds Over Washington

Alleged failures by the National Weather Service to properly disseminate information prior to Hurricane Katrina have revived interest in controversial legislation. A bill proposed by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) could leave TV-station meteorology departments more reliant than ever on private weather services.

Introduced earlier this year, Bill 786 would prevent the National Weather Service (NWS) from offering forecasts that compete with those offered by private services like AccuWeather or WeatherData. That would force stations that rely on free NWS forecasts to pay for commercial ones.

Proponents say the bill benefits local broadcasters by forcing the NWS to be more forthcoming and not play favorites in the media. They point to actions taken by the NWS prior to Katrina as a perfect example of what they consider a major problem.

On the Saturday evening before the storm hit, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center (part of the NWS), called up government officials to warn them of the storm’s severity. But it was nearly four hours later that the NWS issued an official hurricane warning.

“One of the things the bill says is that, if Max Mayfield has something to say, he has to say it to everyone,” says AccuWeather Executive VP Dr. Barry Myers. “We expect our government to provide information to everyone simultaneously, not just to select people.”

If the bill becomes law, Myers says, it will force the NWS to focus on its strengths, like studying weather patterns, while leaving forecasts up to the private sector. “If the public wants the data, give it to them,” says Myers. “But don’t create specialized forecasts that amount to a government subsidy.”

Many station execs are unhappy about the bill. “[It’s] a very bad idea,” says Bryan Norcross, WFOR Miami director of meteorology. “There are things in our system that should be left to free enterprise, but weather information should not be completely left in private hands.”

The NWS isn’t wild about the bill either. “There will be great consequences if the National Hurricane Center is prohibited from providing information about a hurricane and its effects directly to the media,” says Richard Hirn, general counsel, National Weather Service Employees Organization. He says the days of TV interviews by stations and networks with NWS employees could end, due to concerns over lawsuits if an employee says something that isn’t public knowledge.

Contacted at his Washington office, Santorum did not comment.

Both sides concede that the bill, as it stands, is too rigid to pass. It is expected to be tweaked before resurfacing.

Whether or not Bill 786 becomes law, some believe it will at least get the NWS to better address its relationship with the private sector. In a report titled “Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services,” The Weather Channel (TWC) suggested putting a system in place to manage the boundaries between the NWS and commercial services, as opposed to establishing the strict controls that Santorum’s bill would mandate.

Says Ray Ban, TWC executive VP, meteorology science and strategy, “The industry has the obligation to build the right mechanism that would leverage the competencies of the entire weather market.”