Thursday, September 10, 2015

Here's why most of the stuff you see on the local news during hurricane season is total bullish*t


Marty Merzer retired from the Miami Herald in 2008 after more than 29 years at the paper.

In those years, Merzer wrote hundreds of stories about hurricanes. His work during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 helped the Herald win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

But while Merzer is retired, he's still keeping his eye on the tropics.

During hurricane season, he constantly updates his Facebook friends on tropical weather from a fortified bunker in Tallahassee.

Last Aug. 26, as Tropical Storm Erika was still thousands of miles from Miami, Merzer - drawing on decades of experience - told his Facebook friends:
A few words about Tropical Storm Erika and the concern I'm seeing expressed on Facebook: Over the years, I've learned some things about these situations. First of all, everyone in the hurricane zone always should be prepared for tropical weather systems and, as we approach the peak of the season and with Erika out there, this would be a wise time to check and restock your hurricane supplies, perform a test run on your auxiliary generator (if you have one), keep an eye on your vehicle's fuel supply and propane for your grill, etc. But when it comes specifically to Erika, the storm is still on the other side of the outermost Caribbean islands, exactly 1,602 miles from Miami (roughly the distance from Miami to Denver) and 1,955 miles from Tallahassee. The five-day forecast track is pointing toward Florida's East Coast, but five days is a lifetime in the span of a tropical system and many things can and likely will happen during those five days.
Dan Brown and the other hurricane forecasters at the NHC are, quite literally, the best in the world, and they are telling you that the four- and five-day forecasts should be taken as general guidance, as a very early alert, but not as gospel.

I'm told that the broadcast media in South Florida is in team coverage already and hyping like crazy, with one anchor or reporter asking former NHC Director Max Mayfield the other day if it was time to put up the storm shutters - with Erika nearly 2,000 miles away.

Bottom line: Take Erika seriously. Keep an eye on it and prepare accordingly. But, at this point, imo, get a grip. And beware of premature media hype, which can lead to a perilous boy-crying-wolf syndrome when an imminent threat really does appear.

"Boy crying wolf?" Like this, Marty??

Eriika, is long gone, but Merzer is still on the case.

This morning on Facebook, Merzer linked to a very informative post on the National Hurricane Center's official blog... 
Important reading for anyone interested in the limitations still inherent in forecasting hurricane track and intensity - complicated by media inexperience or ignorance or intentional over-dramatization. A key section: "Although NHC’s Tropical Cyclone Discussions (TCDs) repeatedly talked about the uncertainty surrounding Erika’s future beyond the Caribbean, including the possibility that the cyclone could dissipate before reaching Florida, it does not appear that this was a prominent part of the media’s message to Florida residents.... Reaching anyone in the television industry with such [media] training, except for on-camera meteorologists, has proven over the years to be very difficult. We would like to train more reporters, producers, news department staff, executives, etc. so they are more sensitized to forecast uncertainty and how to communicate it with the help of our products, but we realize that a more focused “talking points” approach as described above will probably be needed to assist these busy folks in conveying a consistent message."

A few minutes later, Merzer posted this::
With the thing still on the other side of the islands, experienced reporters and media meteorologists who should know better were posting and broadcasting pieces that sliced and diced exactly where it was "projected to hit Florida." It's aiming straight for Miami. Next advisory - straight to the Keys. Next advisory - along the Space Coast. Next advisory - back to Miami. Some of those pieces had a few words of cautionary context, but the graphics and the ledes did not. It was disappointing - and potentially dangerous, because that behavior can and probably will undermine public confidence and response the next time a real threat appears.

So next time you're wondering why field reporters covering weather events for local TV stations seem so stupid, remember this line: "Reaching anyone in the television industry with such [media] training, except for on-camera meteorologists, has proven over the years to be very difficult."


National Hurricane Center blog: After Further Review: Tropical Storm Erika

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