Will bill darken weather sites?
Critics say the bill would force a government agency to disseminate much of its data only to private companies.
By TOM ZUCCO
Published August 8, 2005
Chuck Husick talks about NOAA as if it's a person, someone sitting out in cyberspace, always ready to help, no questions asked.
Several times a day, and sometimes more, Husick, who flies airplanes, owns a sailboat, and lives near the water at Tierra Verde, visits the federal agency's Web site to get everything from weather reports to tide charts.
Like tens of thousands of other Floridians who rode out four hurricanes last year, and who are bracing themselves for an even more active season this year, Husick, 72, relies almost entirely on Web sites run by the National Hurricane Center, the National Weather Service, and their parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - NOAA.
But Husick and many others worry all that could change, thanks to someone who lives in a state hurricanes rarely reach.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the Senate's third-ranking Republican, introduced a bill in April titled the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005. According to the bill's wording, it would "clarify the duties and responsibilities" of NOAA and the NWS, and "protect life and property."
Santorum has said the bill's intention is to keep NOAA from competing with private companies. The main task of the weather service, he said, is to provide public alerts for emergency conditions such as tornadoes and severe weather, which the bill would require the agency to continue.
But critics say the bill would force NOAA to disseminate much of its data, which is collected at taxpayer expense, only to private companies. The result, they say, would be that the government's ad-free Web sites would go dark.
As proof, they point to a key sentence in the bill involving the cabinet post that oversees NOAA:
"The Secretary of Commerce shall not provide, or assist other entities in providing, a product or service that is or could be provided by the private sector."
That, say opponents of the bill, is akin to telling the U.S. Postal Service that Federal Express and UPS would have exclusive use of all the government's package delivery equipment, and that the post office could only deliver packages if it didn't interfere with the private companies.
Opponents of the bill are also quick to point out that 14 private weather forecasting companies, including AccuWeather, one of the biggest players in the field, have their headquarters in Santorum's home state.
The bill did not get a hearing before the summer recess, but it is still pending before the Senate Commerce Committee and may find its way to the floor of the Senate after Congress reconvenes Sept. 6.
In the meantime, the battle lines have not been drawn.
They've been dredged.
"There's been a general attack on the bill to make it look like something it isn't," said Barry Myers, AccuWeather's executive vice president. "This would do more for the state of Florida than what's ever been done by NOAA or the NWS."
Santorum's office did not respond to interview requests, but Myers argued that the bill would not only put weather information in the public's hands more quickly than it does now, it would put more information on the government Web sites.
"It's totally false," Myers added, "that we want these sites to go away."
But a growing number of people outside the weather business, including Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, don't buy that. Nelson wrote a letter urging President Bush to oppose the legislation.
"Senator Nelson can understand the balance there has to be between not allowing government services to undermine private industry," said Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin. "But in this case, Santorum wants to shut down the Web sites and keep all the information NOAA collects private and available only to those few companies.
"The bottom line question is whether this is in the public interest. It's one thing to be supportive of the employers in your state.
"It's another to carry their water."
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One thing neither side is debating is NOAA's relevance. During the peak of the 2004 hurricane season, from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31, NOAA had 9-billion hits on its Web sites.
A NOAA spokeswoman didn't know how many of those hits came from Florida. But she did say people living in areas affected by severe weather usually account for most of the Internet traffic.
For years, the government weather service has coexisted with the weather-packaging companies. But NOAA, with its arsenal of satellites, aircraft, weather balloons, weather buoys and ground sites, has always had a huge advantage.
The private forecasting companies take the raw data from the government agencies and, among other services, turn it into the maps and graphs they sell to newspapers and TV stations. The St. Petersburg Times gets its daily weather maps from one such company, Weather Central Inc., based in Madison, Wis.
That relationship changed last December when, acting on the recommendation of the National Research Council, NOAA rewrote its regulations.
In place since 1991, the old policy banned NOAA from offering any services already being provided by private businesses or which they might someday decide to offer.
Citing advancements in computer graphics and software that have allowed NOAA to do its job better, the new policy rejects the outright ban as too rigid. Instead it requires NOAA give "due consideration" to what private companies are doing before the weather service modifies its own distribution of material.
That sparked immediate protests from officials at the private companies, who think they now face unfair competition from the weather service.
And three months later, it brought Santorum into the fray.
Santorum is no stranger to Florida. On March 29, while on a fundraising swing through the state, he stopped at Terri Schiavo's Pinellas Park hospice to pray with her parents and appear on national TV.
He faces a tough re-election fight next year, and his office acknowledges the bill is in part an attempt to protect the weather companies based in his home state.
"This is about job retention in Pennsylvania," Santorum spokeswoman Chrissy Shott told the Associated Press shortly after the bill was introduced.
But Myers, AccuWeather's vice president, said the bill has become overly politicized, and that much of the negative sentiment is based on misinformation originated from the NWS union.
"We know the weather service and their union has taken the stand to do whatever they can to get as much public recognition to support their own budget," Myers said. "They want to increase the number of jobs at the weather service and get in front of as many people as possible.
"Our industry can't exist without that data being made available. All we're asking for is the same right the public has."
But the issue, Myers said, goes beyond politics. He also criticized the way NOAA and its agencies do their job.
"During Charley, (National Hurricane Center director) Max Mayfield came on the air on local TV and said the storm had intensified from a Category 2 to a 4," Myers said.
"We started to wonder how is it that the head of hurricane center went on TV to make an announcement of intensification, which was information that no one else had and didn't show up on their Web site until 15 or 20 minutes after he was on TV.
"So adding preparation time, that's about 45 minutes of critical time that was lost so that the National Hurricane Center could break the story. That is playing with people's lives. The Santorum bill would never again allow that to happen."
What the private companies are asking for, Myers said, is nothing special.
"We can make money and have a business based upon doing a better job than the government or anyone else," he said. "We don't need special favors and ask for none."
* * *
Larry Gispert has been directing Hillsborough County's Office of Emergency Management for the past 12 years. He said he has nothing against private weather companies and the job they do.
"But I'm against this," he said last week. "He (Santorum) wants to privatize weather, and I need my weather unfiltered regardless of profit. It's painfully obvious this comes from a state that will benefit greatly if this bill is passed."
But of far greater importance to Gispert is the public safety of the 1.1-million residents of his county.
"If part of getting you to evacuate is to have you feel comfortable going to a Web site to verify what I'm saying on TV or the radio, I'm all for it," he said. "Many adults don't normally believe a single source, and one of the things they do is surf the Net.
"And everybody who has a computer has NOAA or the NWS bookmarked."
Gispert is also concerned that private companies don't have the billion-dollar infrastructure NOAA has.
And he worries the subtle but strong sense of obligation government forecasters have might be compromised.
"When I call the National Weather Service in Ruskin and they tell me what's going on," Gispert said, "it's not because they're making a profit. It's because they're a government servant just like I am. It's unfiltered.
"Is AccuWeather going to help me? I don't think so."
Another question has to do with the free flow of information, and whether the bill would help people who just want their weather, no strings attached.
"We've never had weather information of the variety and quality we have now from the government weather service," Husick of Tierra Verde said. "I looked at the commercial servers. They generally do a good job. But it's largely theatrics and endless commercials, because they're trying to attract the viewing public.
"But would you be able to rely on their information?
"And do you want to put up with pop-up ads?"
[Last modified August 8, 2005, 02:45:22]
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