After a year of deadly weather, cities look to private forecasters to save lives
Last week, Hoboken, N.J. became the latest American city to hire a private company to provide the weather forecasting needed to guide life-saving disaster management work. Until now, Hoboken, like much of the country, mainly got its guidance on extreme weather from the National Weather Service, a federal agency.
Hoboken is following in New York City's footsteps, which also announced a similar move in September. The cities' decisions are a response to the flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which killed 50 people in New Jersey and in New York, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the flooding was a wakeup call.
"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," de Blasio said in a press conference after the floods. "Appreciate the federal government, but they're going to have to make a lot more investments."
The hurricanes had some unprecedented effects. The National Weather Service (NWS) issued its first-ever flash flood emergency warning for New York City during Hurricane Ida. The subway system flooded, but fatalities occurred when people drowned in basement apartments around the city.
Hoboken and New York hope that by using private forecasters, they can have a clearer understanding of the weather and its severity, and get specific warnings out to the public faster. This could save lives and property – without recreating what federal dollars already do.
A free and public service
The NWS is staffed by meteorologists and scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the lead federal agency responsible for monitoring weather and climate. Through hundreds of offices around the United States, the NWS collects observational data by using tools like the Doppler radar, buoys, weather balloons and satellites.
The NWS and the National Hurricane Center, which NOAA also operates, take the information and create a body of public (meaning free) data and feed it to meteorologists around the world. When you open your smartphone to check the weather or tune into your local meteorologist on TV, those forecasts are built on NWS data. But local leaders say, despite those efforts, they still need additional help.
And people like Shimon Elkabetz, the CEO & Co-Founder at the forecasting firm Tomorrow.io, agree.
"Everyone is experiencing different weather and climate-related challenges," Elkabetz says. "Until recently, the forecasts we see everywhere, it's all basically a repackaging of the forecasts that the governmental agencies are publishing daily or hourly."
He said companies like Tomorrow.io could do more. Tomorrow.io has plans to launch their own satellites to collect data, giving business and cities a chance to get a second opinion on weather, something that leaders at Hoboken were intrigued by.
"For us, minutes count."
Caleb Stratton is the chief resilience officer for the City of Hoboken. He goes to work every day thinking about how natural disasters could affect the city – one-square-mile along the Hudson River, with a population of about 60,000 people. (The same density as Midtown or the West Village in New York City.) This year, he said, between the hurricanes and flooding, he knew his city would need more support.
"For us, minutes count," he says.
For emergency managers like Stratton, more extreme weather brings new challenges – like flooding – that historically had not been a problem. And the effects were visible. "Seventy percent of the city flooded," during Hurricanes Ida and a few weeks later later, Henri, Stratton said.
"Homeowners had flooding from rooftops, from backyards, from the street. Garden apartments flooded. It was severe but different in that there was just so much water. And it occurred over a time span that was so brief," Stratton says. "It impacted our emergency operations. It impacted our communications. It impacted residents and businesses."
In New York City, there's a different kind of problem: the sewer system was never built to deal with flooding from rainfall. Meteorologists like Greg Jenkins, a professor at Penn State, say these are the kind of hyperlocal issues that the federal government might not be equipped to handle. "The weather service warned that [flooding] was possible, but they couldn't tell you if your street was going to flood," Jenkins said.
Susan Buchanan, a spokesperson with NOAA, agrees. She told NPR that while the agency's work is the backbone of the weather industry, federal services alone can't create public safety.
"It takes a broad range of partnerships across federal, local, state governments and even the general public and the private weather sector," Buchanan says.
The private weather sector says it has a solution
At Tomorrow.io, they use public and private data to help the NFL cancel games because of lightning, for example, or JetBlue cancel flights because of storms.
Tomorrow.io's agreement with the City of Hoboken is a more ambitious version of work it already does for other cities. Tomorrow.io has contracts with cities in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey to help them decide when to put salt on the roads before it snows – in an effort to cut down on labor and materials costs.
Interest in companies like the four-year-old Tomorrow.io is also driving growth in the sector. This month, they announced a merger with Pine Technology Acquisition Corp., a move which made Tomorrow.io a public company on the stock exchange. The deal puts the two companies' value at $1.2 billion.
Samantha Montano, an emergency management professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, says that while private companies might be doing good work in emergency management, it's unclear what could or should happen if lives are lost due to an inaccurate private forecast.
"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?" Montano says.
After extreme events, Montano said that there is always pressure to "recreate the wheel" of emergency management. Any new services should enhance local expertise, she said. But many cities lack even the basics of emergency management, and private companies could take advantage of that.
"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 [a full-time emergency manager]," Montano says, adding that emergency management is generally underfunded across the U.S.
Success for Hoboken in a world affected by climate change
For Hoboken, the success of its year-long contract with Tomorrow.io will be based on accuracy, Stratton said.
"Not performative and not financial, but simply providing the community with very accurate pieces of information for them to inform their decision making," Stratton says. "We know that Hoboken floods when it rains more than eight inches per hour."
Stratton said city leaders will be looking at whether Tomorrow.io can help predict the exact time of impact to deploy barriers before floods strike, as opposed to sending emergency responders after the storm hits. "[A storm impacts] a lot of different people in a lot of different ways, some as severe as flooding in their lower basement unit," Stratton said "Losing your car is really bad, too, or driving through floodwaters and not having been informed or understanding what those risks are."
Tomorrow.io's contract is estimated to be around $90,000 a year or $7,500 a month, Stratton said. But the expense is outweighed by the chance to save people from drowning at home or in their vehicles, he said.
"There's no proof that it's going to be a productive use of money," he said. "But we have to try something, you know? You have to give it a shot."
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