Media Scene

When good forecasts go bad ...

It happens to the best of them, and Eric Thomas is among the best.

It was the late ’90s and it was a tricky forecast because there was an upper-level disturbance that might pull moisture from the coast, but Thomas and WBTV (Channel 3) meteorology colleague Al Conklin decided that tomorrow would be dry.

“My wife came running in and woke me up that morning and said, ‘You better look out the window,’ ” Thomas recalls. “And snow was falling about 2 inches per hour. And my heart just dropped out of my chest.”

That upper-level disturbance did what upper-level disturbances do, which in this case was to drag moisture west from the Atlantic and drop it all over Charlotte as snow. Every now and then you blow a big forecast, and Thomas still remembers that one.

This week, forecasters in the Northeast were criticized for blowing the prediction in New York City, which braced for 2 feet of snow in a storm of “historical proportions” and instead got a few inches, which up there is just called “January.”

Thomas says he believes a blown forecast in nearby Philadelphia a week earlier – freezing rain unexpectedly hit the city – caused meteorologists and authorities in New York to over-react to the potential for snow.

“This time they didn’t want to get caught with their pants down,” he says. “Then you had the city leaders saying ‘We’re not taking any chances – we’re shutting the city down.’ You just can’t turn a city on and off. Once you’ve made a decision erring on the side of caution, you’d be crazy to reverse that decision and then get hit.”

Steve Udelson, WSOC (Channel 9) chief meteorologist since 1997, says that the threat of the New York storm was over-hyped as well.

“Everything you read was ‘blockbuster,’ ‘life-threatening,’ ‘crippling’ – they left nothing to the imagination,” says Udelson, whose hometown of Framingham, Mass., got 33 inches.

“It’s really about how you say it and how you couch it. You can say we have a high degree of confidence, or this, this and this could be a factor. It’s all about how you convey your confidence in your forecast.”

Udelson – who remembers forecasting an inch when Charlotte got hit with a foot of snow in the memorable 2004 thunder snowstorm – says there were indications that New York would escape the worst this week, but no one seemed willing to back off the prediction.

“Weather is not an exact science,” says Jeff Crum, chief meteorologist at Time Warner Cable News since the channel launched in 2002. Some of it is based on experience of how weather acts in specific places and some just on gut instinct, he says.

Crum remembers getting a feeling days before the 2002 ice storm hit Charlotte that it was going to be bad, and he was right.

Although the forecast for New York City itself may have been overblown, Crum says, it wasn’t far off – communities from Long Island to Boston got 2 feet or more of snow as predicted.

“In the weather world, that was pretty close,” says Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist at WCNC (Channel 36) since 2003.

He remembers a storm that hit Charlotte two weeks after he arrived from his old job in New Orleans. He and veteran forecaster Larry Sprinkle were studying the data and decided it would maybe snow a couple of inches.

“Then it was 4 inches, and in the span of the morning news we went from this little event to 8 inches,” Panovich recalls.

No weather event here gets people’s attention more than snow, says Panovich, who grew up outside Cleveland. People don’t notice if you’re off by some fraction of an inch when you forecast rain.

Historically, people point to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 as Charlotte’s most memorable bad forecast. When the city went to bed, the prediction was that Charlotte would get some wind and rain. By dawn, however, the city had been walloped and faced months of healing.

What people don’t remember is that the forecast was right about the path of that storm, but it didn’t anticipate the power it would bring so far inland, says Thomas, who had come to WBTV a year before the storm hit.

“You can’t spin down a Category Four hurricane in six hours,” says Thomas. “Nobody imagined Hugo’s power would be intact that far inland. Hugo will be the standard by which all storms will be measured for a long, long time.”

Media Movers

WBTV (Channel 3) has filled its last forecasting opening with Leigh Brock, who got a monthlong audition by filling in during December. Brock grew up in Hendersonville, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and worked at WFMY (Channel 2) in Greensboro before taking a job as spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in the Carolinas. …

Joining WJZY (Channel 46) as co-anchor next week is Bill Melugin, who will work on Fox46’s 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts. Melugin comes from the Fox affiliate in El Paso, Texas, where he was a reporter and fill-in anchor for the last two years. …

Kyle McCurry of Fox 46 and Matt Strickert of NASCAR.com are named TV broadcasters of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association at the group’s banquet in Concord. … They’ll finish counting this weekend, but WSOC’s (Channel 9) Steve Udelson’s annual coat drive already has 18,000 coats, a record for his 11-year-old “Steve’s Coats for Kids” drive conducted with Crisis Assistance Ministry...

Bea Thompson, public affairs director for WBAV-FM (“V” 101.9) and Charlotte’s first black anchorwoman, will speak March 5 at the Levine Museum of the New South on “Purses, Platforms & Power,” about the generation of women who opened career doors in the 1970s. Joining her will be Betty Chafin Rash, the first woman elected to Charlotte City Council. …

Carolina Weekly Newspapers names Hannah Chronis as managing editor of the South Charlotte Weekly, Josh Whitener as managing editor of Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly and Ryan Pitkin as managing editor of Union County Weekly. … Two key retirements this week cost the Observer decades of institutional experience: Scott Verner after 30 years, mostly spent focusing on the Cabarrus region, and Joe DePriest after 25 years, based in the Gaston area. … Anniversary of note: Salisbury bureau chief David Whisenant marks 20 years at WBTV. …

Chris Cillizza’s blog on WashingtonPost.com periodically names the best statehouse reporters in the nation. In the most recent list are North Carolina reporters Mark Binker and Laura Leslie of WRAL (Channel 5) in Raleigh, Jon Camp of WTVD (Channel 11) in Durham, Tim Boyum of Time Warner Cable News, Pat Gannon of The Insider, Jim Morrill of the Observer and Gary Robertson of The Associated Press. In South Carolina, the list is Jeremy Borden, Thad Moore and Cynthia Roldan of the Charleston Post & Courier and Cassie Cope and Andy Shain of The State newspaper in Columbia. …

Dilworth Neighborhood Grille is to be featured on CBS’ “Flip My Food” Thursday (9 a.m., Channel 3) says co-owner Norm Randall.

  Comments