Ill-equipped Weather Service too late with alert

When the National Weather Service issued a "special marine warning" at 4:05 p.m. Saturday urging boats to seek shelter, the alert came too late for a Baltimore harbor water taxi. A fierce gust had capsized it about 5 minutes earlier, dumping its 25 passengers into frigid water off Fort McHenry.

But a private weather company with far more monitoring stations than the NWS had been tracking dangerously high winds across the state for nearly an hour, raising an agonizing question: Could a better forecasting network have prevented the accident?

Officials of WeatherBug, an Internet-based weather-reporting service that maintains 220 automatic weather stations across Maryland, said yesterday the answer is yes.

"If the National Weather Service had seen our data, I believe they would have seen a front coming with very high gusts almost an hour before the incident at the harbor," said John Doherty, vice president for government services for WeatherBug, based in Gaithersburg.

The WeatherBug network - consisting of wind gauges and other equipment mostly mounted on school rooftops - recorded a 47-mph gust in Frederick County as early as 3:12 p.m., as a cold front moved from west to east across the state, spawning thunderstorms. By 3:23 p.m., a WeatherBug station atop Glenwood Middle School in Howard County picked up a 57-mph wind, one of two dozen readings across the state that the company says showed the danger long before it reached the harbor.

But at that point, the National Weather Service wasn't picking up signs of a serious threat, said senior forecaster Rich Hitchens, who was on duty Saturday afternoon at the NWS center in Sterling, Va. The service relies on a slower, far more widely spaced reporting network than WeatherBug - 1,200 stations nationwide reporting every hour, compared with WeatherBug's 7,000 stations reporting every 2 seconds.

As a cold front swept across the country toward Baltimore from the northwest, "we had no upstream reports of any extreme winds," Hitchens said. "From our radar reports, it was not a terribly impressive-looking thunderstorm. ... The highest winds I had seen were in the low 30s [mph]."

Those numbers do not contradict the WeatherBug reports, Hitchens said, because the National Weather Service has no automated way to track wind speeds across Maryland. Instead, the service relies on volunteer weather enthusiasts to call in unusual data to a toll-free number. No one in the "Skywarn" network called in warnings about Saturday's storm, he said.

The first moment Hitchens and his fellow forecasters realized there might be a graver threat was when a storm hit Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, he said. At 3:44 p.m. the airport weather station reported a wind of 53 mph.

Then the NWS responded. At 3:58 p.m., approximately when the ill-fated water taxi was leaving Fort McHenry, a short-term forecast noted the possibility of thunderstorms in the area with gusts up to 45 mph. At 4:05, the far more strongly worded special marine warning followed.

That alert described "strong storms near Baltimore," adding: "Mariners can expect wind gusts to near 50 knots [58 mph]. ... High waves. ... Boaters should seek safe harbor immediately until this storm passes."

The shortcomings of the National Weather Service for tracking local weather prompted its parent organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to enter talks more than a year ago with WeatherBug officials about using the private company's data. Limited data from WeatherBug already flows to NOAA's laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

That project is motivated by fears of terrorism. If airborne germs or chemicals were released, federal officials realized NWS would not be able to predict the precise course of a contamination.

But Doherty, the WeatherBug vice president, said the same data could protect the public from severe weather. He said the effort has been slowed by bureaucratic wrangling between NOAA and the Department of Homeland Security and technical difficulties getting National Weather Service computers to accept WeatherBug data.

Greg Romano, a weather service spokesman, confirmed that the government has been working toward getting access to WeatherBug data.

Andy Woodcock, another forecaster based at Sterling, Va., said yesterday the National Weather Service will analyze the reporting before Saturday's accident to see if it could have been handled better.

WeatherBug sends weather reports around the clock to millions of PC users, offering free basic service supported by advertising or an ad-free version at $15.95 for the first year. The data it sends ordinary subscribers does not include wind-speed readings from every station.

The cold front that hit Baltimore on Saturday had spawned storms as it moved east from Indiana to Pennsylvania, and a squall line of storms reached Hagerstown at 2 p.m.

Although some reports Saturday night said the boat had been hit by a "microburst," meteorologists yesterday said that was not necessarily the case.

In a microburst, intense winds result when cold air plummets to earth from a great height. "The air drops down and literally splatters," said NOAA physicist Fernando Caracena.

But because the WeatherBug data show strong gusts accompanied the front across Maryland, no sudden microburst was necessary to turn the water taxi over. "I don't think it was a microburst," said Mark Hoekzema, chief meteorologist for WeatherBug. "I think it was gusts tracking along the storm line."

Hitchens, of the National Weather Service, agreed. A gust of 50 mph might have been enough to topple the boat as it turned at a right angle to the wind, he said. "It's like being in a tractor-trailer going across the Bay Bridge. The wind hits you broadside with a lot of force."