Future Tense

Politicians, Please Stop Blaming Meteorologists for Inept Storm Response

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

During a weekend press conference in Buffalo, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo shot a dagger through the heart of meteorologists:

Cuomo said that “no one had an idea” that Buffalo was in for such a wallop and that the National Weather Service “was off” on its forecasts.

Well, Mr. Governor, the National Weather Service wasn’t off. In fact, if you look back at official forecasts in the days and hours leading up to the first flakes, it was pretty much spot-on—nailing the 5-inch-an-hour superstorm of snow the city received in the initial stages of a double-whammy snowstorm that produced up to 88 inches. Instead, highways were left open and commuters traveled to work—only to be frozen in place for most of the rest of the day.

One trapped motorist wrote a farewell note to her daughters after being trapped for 13 hours in a Chevy Cobalt. At least one person was reported dead after caught in a similar situation. Given the forecast, those roads should have been closed on Tuesday morning.

Although the National Weather Service continually updated its forecast as the storm peaked Tuesday, the New York Post reported that state planners stuck with a plowing strategy that was based on Monday’s initial call of just (just!) 3 feet of accumulation—with clear wording showing more was possible. The first round ended up producing about twice that in the hardest-hit locations, and a second round later in the week brought an additional 2 feet. The post-storm regret was echoed by local officials, who said their plows couldn’t keep up.

Moderate flooding was reported Monday as temperatures soared to near record highs and high winds battered storm-weary trees and houses in the Buffalo area, but the firestorm of words continued from meteorologists, aimed squarely at Cuomo.

One National Weather Service meteorologist has called Cuomo the “Gov. Deal of the North”—a reference to the Georgia governor who, after a 2-inch snowfall in Atlanta earlier this year, blamed the region’s poor response and ensuing 16-hour commute on an “unexpected” storm. Buffalo-area meteorologists also shot back at the criticism:

The Weather Channel, too, pointed out that Monday’s forecast from the National Weather Service mentioned “historic” snow falling at rates that “far exceed the ability to keep roads clear.”

TWC continued its criticism on air, led by Tom Niziol, who headed the Buffalo office of the National Weather Service before joining the Weather Channel: “If you’re going to imply that the office is responsible for at least 13 deaths last week because of a bad forecast, then we here at the Weather Channel feel a responsibility to correct your mistake.”

On Sunday, Cuomo appeared to walk back his criticism, saying: “It is not that the National Weather Service failed us … they perform the best they can with the information they have.”

Juxtaposed with his harsh words for federal forecasters, Cuomo plugged his plan to build “the most advanced weather detection system in the nation,” paid for, in part, with federal money tied to Hurricane Sandy response. What’s he planning to do, launch his own personal fleet of weather satellites?

The 125 weather stations the governor plans to build across New York state will do a great job telling him what storms are actually doing (if they happen to pass over one of them—it’s a big state, after all), but won’t do much to predict the weather. For that, you need supercomputers, weather balloons, and meteorologists—exactly the meteorologists he pissed off this week.

New York politicians have a knack for passing the blame during major weather events. Most famously, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in the hours before Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 landfall, inexplicably said the storm wouldn’t produce “a tropical storm or hurricane-type surge.” A botched blizzard response earlier in his term also cost him severely; Bloomberg was rumored to be in Bermuda at the time.

This isn’t the first time Cuomo has dabbled in misguided meteorology, either. After a severe weather outbreak this July, Cuomo said, “We don’t get tornadoes in New York, right? Anyone will tell you that. Well, we do now.” A quick search of a historical tornado database shows 411 tornadoes in the state since 1950, in practically every county (including New York City). While recent research has shown a northward shift in tornadoes due, perhaps, to climate change, it’s far from certain.

A humble recommendation for those pursuing a career in political science: a few meteorology lessons.