UMD, the tornado warning, and the privatization of weather prediction

Front of the Diamondback in 2001. Courtesy of the UMD Archives.

On September 17th, sirens rang across the UMD College Park campus, with the issuing of a tornado warning by University of Maryland Police Department (UMPD) through an email alert and some students, like myself, being herded to the bottom of buildings like the Hornbake Library, as a result. As it would turn out, this warning was issued based on information from a private weather company, Accuweather. This led to stories in the Baltimore Sun, ABC 7, and Patch, coupled with comments from the UMD community, varied meteorologists and reporters. The rationale behind the UMPD issuing this tornado warning is understandable. In 2001, there was a tornado on campus which killed two female students, and seven years ago there was a similar case to what is happening now. While recognizing this history,  one question which arises: should UMD be relying on a private company to issue weather alerts?

While it is good to rely on multiple sources of information it is a step too far to choose a private source over a public source. As the UMPD stated in a press release on September 17th, “in the interest of public safety, the University of Maryland Police Department contracts with AccuWeather to receive real-time information on storm paths approaching the footprint of our campus community,” which sounds like UMD is outsourcing its weather warnings to a private company. Some may say that such a state of affairs is fine because Accuweather may have better information. While meteorology is not a perfect science, Accuweather is concerned about its bottom line and its shareholders, while public institutions like NWS are accountable and answerable to the public, but an institution like Accuweather is not in the slightest.

The company has engaged in despicable practices in the past. This includes putting out a false tsunami warning earlier this year, then blaming the NWS for “giving them” the information, and slamming the NWS three years before that for not covering a tornado which hit Moore, Oklahoma, even though they didn’t cover the tornado either! They also continue to employ predictive analysis, which includes long-day predictions of 45-90 days which are broadly inaccurate. The company also has violated people’s privacy, by their mobile app storing and sharing a user’s location even when they opted out, something that the company claims it has fixed after such privacy concerns.

There is a more nefarious element to Accuweather and other private weather companies: they are part of an effort to privatize weather prediction in the United States. In 2005, then-Representative Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, proposed a bill which would have prohibited “federal meteorologists from competing with companies…which offer their own forecasts through paid services and free ad-supported Web sites.” While this effective privatization of weather prediction failed, the bill’s goal is something that private weather companies want.

Accuweather’s CEO, Barry Myers, brother of company’s founder (Joel), is a problematic figure. Putting aside that he is a lawyer by trade, he (and the company itself) said that Hurricane Florence wasn’t that bad, despite the fact that 44 people have died, along with the death of 3.4 million poultry and over 5,000 hogs in North Carolina alone. Myers is a big political contributor, not only to Republicans, like Mitt Romney, but to Democrats like Hillary Clinton.

In October 2017, the current U.S. president nominated Myers to head NOAA, at a time that his administration proposed “cutting the NOAA budget by 17 percent. Currently, Myers’ nomination is pending before the U.S. Senate, meaning that privatization of weather prediction will be up for a vote in this legislative body.

As a first step, the campus community and other concerned citizens should push UMPD to cancel their contract with Accuweather to receive “real-time information on storm paths” and push it to use information from public institutions like NWS to issue weather warnings or gain information on the paths of storms. The flagship educational institution of Maryland should be doing all it can to keep the campus community safe, using information from public institutions, rather than private ones.

This was originally slated to be published in the Diamondback but they never responded to me, and then I sent it to the Baltimore Sun on October 3rd as an op-ed with Tricia Bishop, the Deputy Editorial Page Editor, telling me “Thank you for the submission, but we’re going to respectfully decline to run it.” As such, it has been published here. Due to those denials, it likely will not reach the audience I originally intended, but I’m not completely sure what to do about that. I delayed the publishing of this article in hopes that my letter to the editor is published.