Why Are We Glued to the Weather Channel?

On Saturday, Linda Holmes of NPR's monkeysee blog watched 14 hours of The Weather Channel. Why oh why? she laments. Why did I do it?

She isn't sure, but her hilarious introspection on that lost day had me howling louder than the winds of Hurricane Sandy (which are swirling around my apartment as I write). One reason, she writes, is that "the darkest and guiltiest part of your soul is waiting to see a wipeout. Not a dangerous wipeout; you don't want the weather guy to get hurt. But blown over harmlessly so that his windbreaker comes partially unsnapped? Well, yes."

Holmes bares her dark, hurricane-addled soul before us, and by the time we get to her observatioons about the Hot Dog Hut in Atlantic City, she has made an important point. It's a point I happen to agree with: The extreme weather freaks on The Weather Channel and now CNN don't tell us what we need to prepare for a severe storm.

If the man or woman being blown down on Cape Hatteras is a meteorologist, shouldn't he or she be back at the office with a laptop and charts and grafs, telling us what's going on where we live, rather than on Cape Hatteras where we could pretty much guess that it's hard to stand up? If the weather freaks are not meteorologists, why are we watching them?

I've had occasion to test this theory three times now in the past year. First, last year when Hurricane Irene tracked right over New York City, where I live. Then again in August, when my family and I took a vacation in New Orleans just in time to run from Hurricane Isaac. (The Lake Charles refineries are beautiful that time of year.) And now Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on us. If I'd wanted all of this storm activity, I would have bought a houseboat on the Gulf of Mexico.

Yesterday, Elizabeth and our children and I drove from the annual science writers meeting, ScienceWriters2012, in Raleigh, N.C. to New York City--directly along the approaching western edge of "the storm of a lifetime," as the weather freaks were calling it.

From the news on television, radio, and our phones, we learned the wind speeds over the Atlantic; where the center of the storm was located; how fast it was moving; sea temperatures all over the ocean; various millibar measurements; and that it was "the storm of a lifetime." What we didn't learn was: Will it be raining most of the day while we drive north?

We checked local forecasts to get some idea. But why couldn't The Weather Channel say, "And the millions of you living 50-100 miles from the coast can expect rain today, but winds no greater than 20 miles an hour?" It was too busy forecasting doom for the 7 people and one hot dog hut still left on Cape Hatteras. (Correction: Atlantic City.)

Forecasters train their tunnel vision on the center of the storm, the strongest winds, the wildest and most damaging possible consequences, and whatever it is about the storm that makes it unprecedented and far worse than the last one--what makes it "the storm of a lifetime." (The "perfect storm" has already been taken, but "the storm of a lifetime," if true, makes this one better than perfect. Try to top that!)

When we were sitting in our hotel in New Orleans, waiting for Isaac to bubble northward from the Gulf, I tried to get a fix on whether it made sense to drive east or west to get away from the storm in the shortest distance and the quickest time. "Get out of New Orleans!" the weather freaks screamed. But where? West to Lake Charles? East to the Florida panhandle? Would either of those be far enough away to get us out of the storm cone? When I picked up my rental car, I asked the folks at Hertz which way to go. "North," one said.

With Hurricane Irene, we did get the forecast for where we were, because where we were, in New York City, was right in the path of the hurricane's eye and likely to get the worst of the storm. We watched with horror and delight as The Weather Channel focused all its attention on our eye-of-the-storm location. And you know what happened: Nothing. The eye of the hurricane passed across the city during the night, like a warm wind, and we slept through it.

Many parts of the Northeast were devastated, and I don't mean to make light of that. But for some of us, even when the weather freaks were swarming all over us, the forecast was wrong.

Now I’m sitting here as Hurricane Sandy approaches. We just walked back from a late breakfast at a local diner. It’s windy outside, and it’s raining lightly. We were not blown down. The Weather Channel says the winds at the New York airports are hovering around 50 miles an hour—close to the 65- or 75-mph peak that we are told to expect.

I’m sure the wind measurements are correct. I don’t know why we didn’t feel the wind outside.

I do know that something is wrong with these forecasts. I share Linda Holmes’s amusement with the weather freaks. But we need good journalism and clear reports on these storms. And we’re not getting them.

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.