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Privatization Won't Fix This

Bill de Blasio is turning to a private weather company to help New York prepare for floods in the wake of Ida. But he learned the wrong lesson.

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People look at cars abandoned on the flooded Major Deegan Expressway following a night of extremely heavy rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on September 2, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
People look at cars abandoned on the flooded Major Deegan Expressway following a night of extremely heavy rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on September 2, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is weighing changes to how the city responds to extreme weather in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

On Monday, he announced a slew of responses, including mandatory basement apartment evacuation orders, travel bans, and preemptive state of emergency declarations to free up resources. Among these needed ones, though, one odd one stood out. The mayor said the city would hire a private weather firm to, in de Blasio’s words, provide a “second opinion” about the National Weather Service forecast. He added that the NWS does “good and important work,” but claimed the forecasts and warnings “were too vague or too late and we need something more urgent.”

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The comments about the accuracy of the NWS are part of an ongoing and worrying trend of delegitimizing government forecasts in favor of private forecasting. That ultimately takes resources away from disaster preparedness and the response in an era where governments need to take on a firmer role in addressing and responding to the climate crisis.

Let’s be clear that there was nothing wrong with the NWS’s forecast for Ida. It was accurate and timely; two days before New York was hit by Ida, the local NWS forecast office put flash flood watches in place and said in a tweet the storm would “bring a widespread 3 to 5 inches of rainfall, with locally higher amounts possible.” I wrote on this very blog about the dangers the storm posed for the New York metro area the day of. Writing the post made me uneasy, and I canceled plans to go out that night. The point is, the NWS made it clear what was coming.

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In calling for a private firm to gut-check the forecast, de Blasio is shifting blame away from his administration. It also contributes to a decade-plus crusade by private weather forecasting companies like AccuWeather and the Weather Channel looking to turn what is, in essence, a public utility into a privatized market. These services use NWS parent agency National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fleet of sophisticated satellites, weather balloons, and other data as well as federal forecast models to make their predictions.

While there’s certainly space for helpful interpretations of NWS warnings, private forecasting services have also been involved in trying to chip away at the federal agency. A 2005 bill, introduced by then-Sen. Rick Santorum and supported by top brass at AccuWeather (which is based in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania), proposed eliminating the NWS’ public face altogether, forcing it to provide its publicly funded data to private companies that could then sell their services to said public.

Things kicked into high gear in the Trump era, when the then-president nominated AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers to serve as the chief of NOAA, a move that was met with widespread opposition from scientists. After Myers’s nomination, the spokesperson for the NWS employee union told the Washington Post that an Administrator Myers would “turn the Weather Service into a taxpayer-funded corporate subsidy of AccuWeather.” (Myers never got a confirmation hearing.)

Trump infamously took a Sharpie to a NOAA hurricane graphic to expand the storm’s borders in order to make the agency’s predictions fit an erroneous tweet he’d written. The storm, Hurricane Dorian, had just left the Bahamas in ruins, and Trump’s stunt undermined public trust in the government’s weather predictions. (A public records request later revealed that top brass at NOAA had tried to silence NWS employees in order to not piss off Trump.)

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de Blasio raising the specter of a private company joining the mix reflects this same attitude. But prioritizing hiring a private company to second-guess the NWS won’t necessarily make things safer. It’ll simply add another voice to the mix that relies on many of the same tools and data already provided by the NWS—and create another roadblock between forecasts already provided to the public and people’s reception of those forecasts.  

Right now, the NWS forecast is a great democratizing source of weather. The data underlying it is publicly available and whether you’re Jeff Bezos or an Amazon warehouse worker, you get access to the same forecast. As How to Save a Planet reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis pointed out on Twitter, federal forecasts have made people safer when it comes to hurricanes.

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Letting private companies control that publicly funded data or taking an outsize role in setting the tone for disaster preparedness could pose a risk to those gains. If the NWS is sidelined, are we looking at a future where only the wealthy have access to accurate forecasts? The agency also provides warnings that are clearly defined in every region. Farming that service out to private companies could lead to different types of warnings or thresholds for triggering them, which could be confusing to the public when extreme weather is bearing down.

In his analysis of why warnings about New York’s floods seem to have been overlooked, University of Georgia meteorologist Marshall Shepherd wrote in his Forbes column that the rise of private weather apps may have contributed to people being caught off-guard. Those apps can provide specific details on local weather, but may not always accurately convey the seriousness of NWS warnings.

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Even a barrage of up-to-the-minute forecasting that somehow beats the government’s very good services and has the same sterling credibility won’t fix some of the most dangerous accomplices to climate change: poverty, income inequality, and poor planning. Most of the deaths in the city were people living in illegal basement apartments.

It’s not a stretch to see connections between unsafe apartments and the city’s larger affordable housing crisis. New York City’s subways flood not just because there’s more rain now, but also due to decades of mismanagement and corruption. Before de Blasio slams the government’s accurate forecasting, he should look to his own administration to see what helped make this storm so damaging and deadly.