Originally created 09/29/03

Fair weather fans

Moviegoers recall that in the famed '70s film Jaws, the mayor sought to play down the dangers of the man-eating shark lurking in the waters near the beach community's seashore.

Fearing the information would scare away tourists and swimmers, he took the "optimistic" view that the shark attack was an aberration, and wasn't likely to be repeated. The mayor was more concerned about the health of his village's economy than of the safety of its swimmers.

Something like that is taking place today regarding weather forecasting.

Traditionally, in tracking hurricanes, forecasters have given a three-day warning for communities to evacuate or take emergency measures. But this year, they changed to a five-day forecasting model.

Emergency planners are pleased with the change - it gives them extra time to prepare for the worst. The tourist industry, like the mayor in Jaws, is not convinced it's a good idea.

Five days, they fear, might be too long a lead time to be accurate, and could needlessly frighten people away from visiting safe tourist communities. For the most part, Isabel forecasters were accurate, although the storm did make landfall about 200 miles from the original five-day estimate.

South Carolina tourism might have actually benefited from the early forecasts, which predicted the storm would miss that state's coastal communities. But concerns still haven't been dampened. "In this case, the five-day track didn't hurt us," said Center for Resort Tourism spokesman Gary Loftus. "I still think a five-day window is too broad and unnecessary."

Even if he's right, and forecasters are predicting further out than they're really capable of - which has yet to be proved - they're only costing folks money. But what if he's wrong? Well, if forecasters don't make the most of meteorological technology which is advancing by leaps and bounds, people may die. That would be negligent. And it would be unconscionable.

The sooner weather data can get to the public, the better people can prepare for what's coming - be it bad weather or good.

Meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center say the five-day storm tracking model "performed in excellent fashion ... It's serving the function for which it was designed."

As long as that's true, it would be better to stick with the five-day forecast than go back to three days. The safety and security of people and property are always more important than making a buck. Let's not make the same mistake the mayor in Jaws did.


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