During the first week of hurricane season, the 65 people who gathered at Lafreniere Park weren't there just to picnic and play volleyball; they came to talk tropical storms and tornados. It was the second annual "weather picnic" for the members of GulfCoastWX.com, New Orleans' largest citizen-led weather-watching Web site. WWL-TV meteorologists Laura Buchtel and Jonathan Myers made an appearance, and attendees had come from all over Louisiana and Mississippi and as far as South Carolina. And the whole thing was organized by an aspiring weatherman who still can't legally buy a beer.
"Ever since I was a kid, I loved the weather," says Zack Fradella, 20, a Harvey native who started GulfCoastWX four years ago. He had been a regular commenter on WWL's online weather forum, eventually being promoted to moderator status while still in high school; when the station discontinued the forum, Fradella began his own site. Others followed. Since then, he's graduated high school, performed an internship under WVUE-TV meteorologist Bob Breck and practiced some stormchasing on the Gulf Coast and in the Midwest, most recently chasing tornados in Oklahoma.
Just as political blogs have grown in influence on the Web, GulfCoastWX has flowered from a small messageboard to a site with its own dedicated server, moderators and team of amateur experts, led by Fradella. GulfCoastWX is the first site listed when one types "Gulf Coast weather" into Google, above both The Weather Channel, the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center. During an event like a hurricane or a flooding rainstorm, it receives hundreds of posts a day from around the country, according to Holly Erwin, one of the site's four volunteer moderators. When a storm system enters the Gulf, the number of viewers climbs exponentially, and sometimes professional meteorologists will add their analyses to the mix. Its current slogan even has a bit of TV-news swagger: "Your Home For Hurricane Season '09."
There have been amateur meteorologists and weather hobbyists since the days of Aristotle, but the emergence and influence of GulfCoastWX wouldn't be possible without the Internet. The site costs about $50 per month to run, according to webmaster Scott Guidry. It costs nothing to join, and you don't have to become a member to read. The site accepts no advertising and subsists on donations from its members, as well as volunteer hours from Guidry, Erwin and several other moderators who are purposely separated geographically in case of evacuation. The rest is done with collective people power; 75 percent of posters are from southeast Louisiana parishes, according to Guidry, though members come from "the Rio Grande to Tampa," he says.
Citizen-led weather reporting can be "a double-edged sword," says John Gumm, the former WWL meteorologist who is now at WKRC-TV in Cincinnati. "One of the things I noticed right away," he says of his New Orleans days, "was whenever we got a hurricane threat, people wanted much more than I could provide in a three-minute weathercast, so they turned to the [weather] boards. With that came some problems — people chiming in with no idea what they were talking about. But whenever your source is credible, a site like GulfCoastWX, filled with people whose passion is weather, even though they may not have meteorology degrees, is able to provide credible information."
Fradella, for all his interest and study, isn't a member of any officially sanctioned state or national meteorological organization; unlike professional weatherwatchers like Gumm and Breck, he hasn't any certification from the American Meteorological Society, which offers its seal of approval only to rigorously trained meteorologists. In April, Fradella, Guidry and several other GulfCoastWX members completed SKYWARN, a two-hour volunteer class held by the National Weather Service to train civilians, but that's the extent of their formal training.
"Zack is a meteorological prodigy. But it's the Internet," Gumm concludes. "So be careful of all the information you come across."
Bob Breck, chief meteorologist and "Your Weather Authority" at WVUE-TV, takes a dimmer view of sites like GulfCoastWX. "I stay away from them," he says. Not that Breck is technology-averse; his broadcasts employ state-of-the-art computerized weather instruments, and he keeps a personal weather blog at www.bobbreck.com. When Breck started his career as a forecaster in Tampa, Fla., in 1971, he says, information from the National Weather Service wasn't available to the general public; it arrived in the newsroom via teletype. "Hurricane information was restricted to those who knew how to interpret the data," he says. "Is it better today? I guess. A more educated public is certainly a plus. But a lot of these so-called amateur weather forecasters think they know enough to make predictions. That can often get dangerous, and it tends to frighten people."
Fradella and his fellow moderators say they're well aware of their responsibilities, especially when a storm gets into the Gulf and Louisiana residents are wondering when, or if, to leave. "We would never instruct anyone to evacuate," Erwin says. "Instead we post the maps and the information and instruct people to check with the National Weather Service and local authorities."
Board rules are posted prominently at GulfCoastWX; the first has to do with courtesy, and indeed the boards are free from the rancor and cursing prevalent at less-well-moderated forums; the tone is lively, friendly and helpful. The second rule is a prohibition of "wishcasting" (making a forecast based on a poster's personal preference). The site also warns: "No personal forecast should be considered as 'official.' Please look to the National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service, Storm Prediction Center, and your Local Officials & Emergency Personnel."
None of this is to say that GulfCoastWX posters are shy about offering their views or forecasts, in some cases with a good deal of, well, weather authority. Regarding a weak tropical system that formed last week, Fradella stated, "This will probably bring Florida some much needed rainfall as a disturbance or possibly a weak TS/TD [tropical storm/tropical depression]. This shows no threat to us and if we can keep this ridge through September, we may not see very many storms make it to the Gulf this year."
It's the latter part of that statement that bothers Breck. "The danger is in all these amateur weather forecasters trying to hype things beyond what they really are," he says. "I know people who get on the Web with a high school education making predictions, saying, 'This will be a Category 4 storm and it's headed for the Louisiana coast!' I say, gol-ly! You've got a high school education and you're contradicting someone with a Ph.D., getting the public totally scared."
Gumm acknowledges the magnifying effect of impassioned Internet discussion, but points out that a pool of hundreds of volunteers can be self-policing — and that many posters, scattered geographically, can gather and disseminate information in ways traditional meteorologists cannot.
"In some ways, [GulfCoastWX] acts like a community bulletin board," he says. "If you're evacuating, they can tell you where there are hotel rooms, who takes pets, all kinds of great information."
Fradella isn't giving up GulfCoastWX, but he's about to embark on a new chapter of his life later this year, when he packs up his GMC Envoy with the wind gauge on top and heads for the University of South Alabama, where he'll be majoring in — no surprise — meteorology, with an eye toward a television career.
Meanwhile, everyone involved says they expect GulfCoastWX will continue to grow; it now has presence on Twitter and Facebook, and Guidry says that based on site statistics from previous summers, there'll be a new influx of registered posters and weather enthusiasts if a storm threatens the Gulf.
Among them will be passionate weatherwatchers like "Dylan," who joined the site in March and has racked up more than 2,000 posts, already sounding like an old hand in many of them, as in this comment from last week: "It looks like our 1st serious heat of the year maybe late next week as the models agree on an Upper Level Ridge developing over our area. My thinking is that temperatures may reach the Upper 90's across the area." (He was partially right; it was indeed the hottest week of 2009 so far, but temperatures didn't climb above the low 90s.) And then, there was this: "The CFS [Center for Freshwater Studies] constantly is showing something in the GOM in Late September."
According to his profile on GulfCoastWX, Dylan is 14 — about the same age Fradella was when he began posting weather reports online. "My favorite and most experienced field in the weather is with the Tropics," Dylan writes. "When I get out of High School I want to go to college and get a degree. After that I hope to become a Broadcasting Meteorologist."