Meteorology consultants take government data and analyze it according to their clients' needs.
By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published September 13, 2004
[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Alan Archer, owner of Continental Weather Corp., works at his home office in Lutz. The former WFLA-Ch. 8 and radio weatherman employs 11 meteorologists to provide personalized forecasts for his clients, which include radio stations and private businesses in the Southeast and Caribbean.
LUTZ - From his home office here Thursday, Alan Archer was giving Hurricane Ivan updates to Disney Cruise Lines in the Bahamas, radio stations in the Caribbean and Verizon executives in Tampa.
Archer, owner of Continental Weather Corp., is one of a handful of contract meteorologists retained by businesses and government entities when forecasts from the National Weather Service just aren't good enough.
Though these hired guns are quick to praise government meteorologists - and in fact rely on them for critical data - the private services offer far more customized and localized information for their clients, with frequent updates as storms near.
Archer, who has 11 meteorologists on his staff, watches three computer monitors that track data from a variety of sources, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Maryland. Like other weather consultants, he compares a variety of computer models, averaging them out to forecast what's ahead. Archer is quick to credit NOAA's scientists.
"We're the end users of the data, but they're the stars," he said of the government's weather researchers. "They make us look good."
In addition to tailoring the government's broad-brush information to a specific client's needs, consultants like Archer provide another invaluable service: a meteorologist on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
John Phelps, director of risk management for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, relied heavily on WeatherData Inc. of Wichita, Kan., for advice as Hurricane Frances threatened the insurer's Jacksonville headquarters - and 6,000 employees - earlier this month.
"It's great, because all you need to do is pick up the phone," he said. "Not once did their meteorologists say, "Look, I'm busy."'
Phelps said the private consultant's predictions have proven more reliable than the National Weather Service's Hurricane Center. "But there's a difference between the two in philosophies," said Phelps, who is responsible for about a dozen Blue Cross offices across the state. "The National Hurricane Center has an obligation to the public at large. WeatherData's allegiance is to us."
Home Depot consults with Early Alert of Marathon for advice on store closings, reopenings and truck logistics.
"We can interpret the arrival of storm conditions and wind fields, so Home Depot's executives can leave stores operational until the very last minute and reopen sooner," said William Wagner III, Early Alert's president. "It gives them a little market edge."
Said Don Harrison, a spokesman for Home Depot in Atlanta, "Anything we can do in terms of saving time, getting word to our stores or our trucks, is invaluable."
Progress Energy looks to WSI Corp. of Andover, Mass., for advice on a hurricane's path so it can decide how many cleanup crews it needs and when they can be deployed. During winter storms, WSI helps the utility determine areas of highest ice accumulation for its customers in North Carolina.
Each of the contract weather services has a specialized niche in an increasingly competitive market. Archer, who was a weatherman on WFLA-Ch. 8 and local radio in the mid 1970s, says his customer base is about evenly divided between radio stations and private businesses, primarily in the Southeast and Caribbean.
WeatherData in Wichita touts a patented handheld device that tracks lightning, temperature and winds at the user's location; it was used by a professional storm photographer to get shots from the eye of both Hurricanes Frances and Charley.
WSI has business clients, but it is also the leading provider of weather graphics for broadcasters, distributing nearly 10,000 computer-generated images to nearly 400 stations during the last two storms. Among the local customers of WSI, sister company of the Weather Channel, are Bay News 9, WFLA-Ch. 8 and WFTS-Ch. 28.
"WSI's graphics allow us to do animations and take in satellite imagery from all over the world," said Steve Jerve, WFLA's chief meteorologist. "We've got a lot of time to fill for presentations, so the more graphics the better."
ImpactWeather Inc. in Houston boasts personalized Web pages for clients and massive cell phone messaging capabilities. Rick Iuliucci, a port captain for Maritrans, a petroleum shipper based in Tampa, said he selected the company because of its ability to send storm updates electronically to Maritrans' fleet anywhere at sea, as well as the company's shoreside locations.
"Other folks did good work, but ImpactWeather was set up to deliver the technology we needed," he said. "Our fleet of ships, tank barges and tugboats is e-mailed forecasts as they're updated, four times a day, showing a storm's projected path, wind field and scope. We need to look at sea conditions, like wind and wave reports. That's something you don't see on the Weather Channel."
Iuliucci, who received his first computerized cell phone warning of Ivan early last week, said the service helps him adjust ships' routes and delivery schedules. "If we have enough advance notice, we can go back to our customers and find another port to deliver the product," he said. "Then there are times when we just have to slow down and find a port."
Another benefit: Anyone on Maritrans' staff can talk to a meteorologist. Iuliucci said an employee who was debating the need to board up his house in Jacksonville before Frances decided not to do so after getting advice from ImpactWeather.
"They talked him through that one," Iuliucci said.
While corporate clients were reluctant to talk about the cost of having a skilled meteorologist on call, Darrell Reyka, manager of security and telecommunications for Sarasota Public Schools, said his system's bill from WeatherData is about $22 per month per school.
"Our county is so spread out with 42 schools, that just hearing general weather advisories didn't give us the information we needed," Reyka said. "WeatherData gives us continual updates through e-mail and fax, as well as on a dedicated weather terminal connected to their host site 24 hours a day."
It's not just hurricanes on WeatherData's radar. Reyka said the system has proven valuable for early alerts about dense fog, high winds and lightning at specific school sites. "It helps us if we need to know to cancel an athletic event or open house," he said.
(Neither Pasco, Pinellas nor Hillsborough county school systems use private weather services, relying instead on government agencies.)
As Archer, in hourly radio broadcasts sent via Internet, calmly warned Jamaicans last week of near-certain devastation from Ivan, he said a contractor's business relies on his accuracy and personalized service.
"And your accuracy is determined by your clients," he said.
But after 30 years of predicting weather, Archer's clients think his accuracy is pretty good. Bob Elek, a spokesman for Verizon, recalled sitting in his company's headquarters in Tampa last month, watching TV forecasts that showed Hurricane Charley headed straight toward the Tampa Bay area.
That prediction conflicted with Archer, who had told them two days earlier that Charley would make landfall farther south.
"Alan would be the first one to tell you these things are very unpredictable," said Elek, whose company has landline phone service in Polk, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota and Manatee counties. "But because of his advice, we were not as frantic. And ultimately, he was pretty accurate."