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NYC hires private weather service for public safety after lethal flooding this fall

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

As storms and extreme weather events are getting worse due to climate change, city could find themselves facing new threats. This is a worry for New York, where officials are poised to hire private weather forecasting company to supplement forecasts they already get from government scientists. NPR's Jeffrey Pierre has more.

JEFFREY PIERRE, BYLINE: For the first time ever this past September, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency in New York City. They tweeted out the warning at 9:30 p.m., but by that time, the storm had already dumped enough rain to flood the subway. Cars were seen floating away. Sixteen people died. It was a wake-up call for the mayor, Bill de Blasio.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BILL DE BLASIO: What we're realizing now is, even with the information we get from the National Weather Service, we're going to have to be much more cautious because the warnings we get are not sufficient.

PIERRE: Now the city is planning to hire a private weather forecasting company to get a quote, unquote, "second opinion" on weather-related events. Historically, working with a private weather forecaster is something that farmers or industry have relied on, but other cities and counties might start turning to these companies, too. Greg Jenkins is a meteorology professor at Penn State and was near Philadelphia when Ida hit and caused massive flooding.

GREG JENKINS: The weather service warned that this was possible, but they couldn't tell you if your street was going to flood.

PIERRE: He says the storm's threat could have been communicated a lot better.

JENKINS: With Ida, the threat was coming probably around rush hour. And so communicating that to people saying, hey, maybe you don't want to leave work early today.

PIERRE: The National Weather Service is trying to address this. The agency is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. It has field offices all over the country, and commercial weather services like AccuWeather use federal data for the forecast that you see on your smartphone or TV. Susan Buchanan is a spokesperson with NOAA.

SUSAN BUCHANAN: We collect all the environmental data through our satellites, our ocean buoys. We send up weather balloons every day.

PIERRE: She says all of that work is the foundation of the weather enterprise, but weather services can't create public safety alone in a vacuum.

BUCHANAN: It takes a broad range of partnerships across federal, local, state governments and even the general public and the private weather sector.

PIERRE: The weather service's forecasting is very detailed and accurate, but private companies say that there are opportunities to interpret these forecasts to better prepare the public. Renny Vandewege is the vice president of weather operations at DTN. He oversees over 120 meteorologists around the world.

RENNY VANDEWEGE: A weather forecast is a great thing, but our goal is to transform that forecast into operational intelligence for customers.

PIERRE: For example, when a weather event is given a severe thunderstorm warning, the wind speed is generally 58 miles per hour or stronger. That warning might not be sufficient for some of DTN's clients, which include outdoor music festivals.

VANDEWEGE: And at those festivals, they will set up temporary stages, temporary, you know, monitors - like, big TVs. And those have wind thresholds that may be lower or higher than that severe thunderstorm warning.

PIERRE: A company like DTN would advise a festival organizer not to wait for the severe storm warning, but instead to keep an eye out for wind speeds that could seriously damage their equipment. And for the cities that don't have the resources, private companies could fill those gaps. New York City, for example, has an in-house meteorologist and an office of climate resiliency, but that's not the case everywhere. Samantha Montano is an emergency management professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

SAMANTHA MONTANO: Most communities, particularly rural communities, poor communities across the country, have a part-time emergency manager where it's the fire chief doubling as the emergency manager. They don't have the budget for it.

PIERRE: She agrees that private companies are doing some necessary work, but local governments will still have to decide if using them is worth it.

MONTANO: Are we giving these million-dollar contracts to these private companies where there isn't really much accountability and we don't really know what they're capable of doing?

PIERRE: And for now, New York City will be the country's case study for what a second opinion on weather actually looks like and if it can work. Jeffrey Pierre, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeffrey Pierre is an editor and producer on the Education Desk, where helps the team manage workflows, coordinate member station coverage, social media and the NPR Ed newsletter. Before the Education Desk, he was a producer and director on Morning Edition and the Up First podcast.