For real weather fans, there's a choice

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas Circuit Judge John Lenderman doesn't rely on TV weather anchors or official forecasters to make decisions when tropical storms like Gustav or Hanna start rotating toward the United States.

He turns to Jyotika Virmani, his neighbor two doors down.

Virmani's hobby is hurricane forecasting. She's often up at 5 a.m. to analyze satellite images and ocean temperatures so she can send a storm update to her friends before she heads off to her job at a coastal ocean observing consortium.

"She gives some fairly bold predictions that I find turn out to be fairly accurate," said Lenderman, a family court judge. "I've found them to be more of a heads up than what I consider are a little more conservative forecasts from the National Hurricane Center or the local weather people."

Most people are content to get their hurricane updates from official sources. But the weather fanatics among us turn more and more to forecasters like Virmani who may predict a storm's path many hours before the official weather forecasters are comfortable doing so.

Like the official forecasters, they can be both right and wrong. But that doesn't stop them from forecasting boldly.

• • •

In 2004, when Bonnie, Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne made Florida history, Virmani, now 38, was working on her Ph.D in oceanography at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. She had a master's degree in atmospheric science, so her friends and neighbors started to ask her about the storms.

Virmani knew how to interpret pressure fields, wind shear, ocean temperature, water vapor, convection activity and other data so she began to come up with her own forecasts.

"I ended up saying the same thing to every single person and repeating myself a number of times," she recalled.

The following year (Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma), she began sending an e-mail with her predictions. Today she has a blog and sends forecasts to 160 people. She estimates they forward it to four times as many people.

She acknowledges that she's gotten it wrong at times. But those who wait for her e-mails say she's remarkably accurate.

"It's actually the first source of information I go to because she tends to be really accurate, and I trust that," said Joel Bellucci, 37, a freelance graphic artist.

Virmani, who grew up in Manchester, England, likes to explain the science behind the storms and infuses her reports with humor and words that send people to the dictionary.

She wrote Tropical Storm Fay had taken "a boustrophedon-like tour of Florida," meaning it wandered back and forth like an ox plowing a field, and that it was "agathokakological," meaning both good and evil, because it not only brought flooding but lots of much needed rain.

"Great Googlimooglies!!!" she wrote last week. "Who forgot to give Mother Nature the 'It's Labor Day Weekend: everything will be closed for the long weekend' memo?"

• • •

In 1998, Florida State University's president asked Peter Ray, a meteorology professor at the school, to analyze a storm that forecasters were predicting might hit Tallahassee. FSU was playing Southern California. Should they cancel the game?

Ray determined the storm would come ashore in the western Panhandle and deliver squally weather to Tallahassee. FSU won the game.

"It turned out that my forecast was right on," said Ray, 63. "And then a lot of interest grew in receiving those forecasts from the general public and people with special interests, businesses and social service agencies."

Today, when a storm veers toward the United States, Ray sends e-mails to 30,000 people, sometimes three times a day. Florida State was concerned about liability and does not allow him to send the forecasts from its computer network.

Among those who receive Ray's forecasts: a beer distributor, a lobbyist, an eye doctor and a former Department of Children and Families chief of staff.

"I used to use Peter Ray's forecasts to plan our reactions for emergency food stamps for evacuations and building protection measures," said Bill Spann, 47, the former DCF chief, now president of a contractors trade association. "He's typically right before the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center."

Ray acknowledges he is bolder than official forecasters because he doesn't have the weight of the public response on his hands.

"I have no official responsibility," Ray said. "People can follow it or not follow it. I just give an unadulterated, most accurate forecast I know how. So I don't factor in the sociological response."

Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center, acknowledged the center can be more cautious when it comes to major track or intensity changes.

He encourages people to make sure they are getting their weather from accurate sources. Still, Landsea said, "it's a free country," and it's up to individuals to decide where they turn for information.

• • •

He's known as Storm W on the Weather Underground Web site, a compilation of things weather-related that received about 25-million hits one day last week.

But his real name is Thomas Walsh. He's 51, from Palm Harbor, retired from the Coast Guard. He doesn't have a degree but once took a meteorology correspondence course.

Storm is one of just three featured bloggers on Weather Underground, a special distinction since last week alone 140 people updated their weather blogs there. The Web site was founded in 1995 by Jeff Masters, a former flight meteorologist for the federal government's Hurricane Hunters who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Walsh spends 12 hours a day forecasting in hurricane season. His blog gets up to 60 hits a day.

Roberta Gillentine, 37, a stay-at-home mother from Tampa, is an avid reader of multiple blogs on Weather Underground, including Walsh's. She keeps tabs on the National Hurricane Center and even posts its advisories on her own Weather Underground blog. But some of the weather bloggers help her make faster decisions.

"If a storm is barrelling this way, and I think I need to leave," she said, "I want to beat the rush."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

>>fast facts

Where to find them

To visit Jyotika Virmani's blog, go to jyotikastorms.blogspot.com/.

To join Peter Ray's list serve, send an e-mail to hurricane-forecast-request@lists.hcs.net and write 'subscribe' in the subject line.

To visit Weather Underground, go to www.

wunderground.com/.

For real weather fans, there's a choice 08/30/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 6, 2008 2:51pm]

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