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PG Columnists

TV weather is a blizzard of hype

Wednesday, March 17, 1999

By Gene Collier

On Feb. 1, 1936, in the Transvaal area of southern Africa, a hailstorm of jagged lumps of ice killed 19 people.

Now that's weather.

There's a 70 percent chance of jagged lethal lumps of ice falling out of the sky? That's news you can use. In just about every other situation, I have no use for weather details. In an agrarian age, it might have been different, but in post-industrial America, I prefer the forecast the way it used to be handled by Channel 5 in New York, where the entire weather segment went something like this:

"Rainy day in midtown and most of the region. Much the same tomorrow with temperatures holding in the 50s. Back with sports in a moment." In one hour of news, five seconds of weather. That's plenty.

I mention this because travel plans throughout the past week forced me to watch the weather forecasts, which are now apparently written by horror master Stephen King and bounced off satellites to meteorologists all over the country.

All that meteorologists can say for certain, even as they drag their Ph.D.s into the studios of The Weather Channel and interpret the freshest computer data available, is that Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Maybe not today or tomorrow, maybe not even in the five-day forecast, but something bad is going to happen Mister, soon enough. Perhaps it'll come overnight. Oh yeah, when you're sleeping. There you'll be, beneath your down comforter, the soft dreamy spring breezes sashaying through your idled mind belying the looming certainty of a barometric reading out there somewhere indicating an atmospheric instability that will manifest in flying meat cleavers coming to hack you to death!

Could play havoc with your morning rush hour, too.

Last weekend was one long round of liar's poker among forecasters as a "significant" winter storm followed a wobbly path toward the Ohio Valley. It took the classic form.

"One-to-three inches," came the standard opening bid.

"Two-to-four," said the other technology. You can't just see one-to-three. With millions of marketing dollars dumped all over Snowtracker 2000, you can't just come back with the other guy's one-to-three. It's two-to-four to you, Joe.

"Three-to-six, that's Doppler. Read it and weep."

"Four-to-six," said Smackuweather.

Then, of course, the pot-breaker.

"We'll see your four-to-six, and raise you four-to-six. There. Eight-to-12."

The implied meaning of eight-to-12, of course, is "milk and bread."

Only once in the 17 years I've been in Pittsburgh has a storm come this way that prevented me from getting to a store. Once. You know what two things I did not want in that situation? Milk and bread. And for the next storm of the century, put me down for Doritos and Oreos and keep your milk and bread.

By Friday afternoon, with The Weather Channel examining "tornadic activity" in Texas and planting some poor guy in a parka across the river from crystal-clear Cincinnati awaiting imminent whiteout conditions, schools locally were canceling Monday events out of sheer terror. By Monday, of course, the kids could have roller-skated to the Carnegie Science Center from anywhere in the area.

It didn't matter that we didn't get whacked. The weather people accomplished their mission: They scared the heck out of us. On a perfectly acceptable day a few weeks ago, Channel 2 opened the weather segment with a shot of Norway's snow and sub-zero temperatures. Another night they showed Alaska. The implication was clear. This could be you, buddy. Milk and bread.

Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com

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