Cold Hard Facts
As de Blasio Loses Roker, Call In the Weather Detective
The ‘Today’ show star blasted the New York mayor’s decision to keep schools open Thursday. Was it dangerous? Let's call in the weather detective.
“Al Roker @alroker Why are schools all around NYC closed? It’s going to take some kid or kids getting hurt before this goofball policy gets changed.”
Roker was speaking as a dad with a daughter in a New York City public school as well as the Today show’s weatherman on assignment at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Mayor Bill de Blasio—who had begun the day shoveling snow outside his Park Slope home as a school bus rumbled past with the kids inside opening their windows to shout, “We want a snow day!”— responded to Roker’s criticism during a late morning press briefing.
“I respect Al Roker a lot, watched him on TV for many, many years; it’s a different thing to run a city than to give the weather on TV,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio went on, “I respect all the meteorologists out there, but the one I respect the most is called the National Weather Service… and they just affirmed to us on the call before we came out to you, that this went faster and heavier than their projections last night.”
Roker tweeted a public response to the response. He stood up for the modestly paid National Weather Service, which does the actual forecasting work for him and other highly paid TV weather folks.
Roker also said:
“Al Roker @alroker @NYCMayorsOffice says snow was faster/heavier than expected. No, Mr. Mayor, It came as predicted. Don’t blame weather for YOUR poor policy.”
“Al Roker @alroker Mr. Mayor, I could never run NYC, but I know when it’s time to keep kids home from school.”
Roker had since learned that his daughter’s school was closing early.
“Al Roker @alroker I knew this am @NYCMayorsOffice @NYCSchools would close schools. Talk about a bad prediction.”
Roker offered a prediction of his own:
“…Long range DiBlasio [sic] forecast: 1 term.”
The National Weather Service office that covers New York City did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday and the forecasts obtainable via its online archive do not offer a projected rate of snowfall at the opening of the school day. A forecast as of 4:12 p.m. on Wednesday does say that a winter storm warning would be in effect as of midnight. The forecast, made six hours before de Blasio decided to keep the school open, goes on to say:
“TONIGHT… CLOUDY… SNOW… MAINLY AFTER MIDNIGHT. SNOW ACCUMULATION OF 1 TO 3 INCHES. LOWS IN THE MID 20S… CHANCE OF SNOW 90 PERCENT… THURSDAY… SNOW AND SLEET IN THE MORNING… THEN RAIN… SNOW AND LIGHT SLEET IN THE AFTERNOON. ADDITIONAL SNOW AND SLEET ACCUMULATION OF 4 TO 8 INCHES.”
Which means that the NWS had predicted a total of 7 to 11 inches by Thursday afternoon. That had been enough to prompt the city’s Catholic schools to close on Thursday. It had also led de Blasio himself to issue a weather warning asking motorists to stay off the streets unless absolutely necessary.
In defense of his decision to keep the city schools open, de Blasio noted that the city had declared only 11 snow days since 1978. The question of whether he should have made Thursday the 12th inspired a Facebook page called “Close NYC Schools During Snow Emergencies,” which quickly had more than 12,000 likes. One dad posted:
“Strangely proud of my 5 year old daughter’s proper use of this phrase: ‘Mayor de Blasio is a royal a--hole!’ #nyc born and bred.”
The controversy may well become an issue in a lawsuit if a child or a parent or teacher was injured as a result of the schools being kept open. A tumble on a patch of ice could be enough.
The resolution of any weather-related legal action is generally determined by a range of scientific particulars as established by everything from Doppler radar to contemporaneous measurements taken on the ground.
And when it comes to such questions, lawyers often turn to the weather detective, 41-year-old Howard Altschule.
As a forensic meteorologist, Altschule is called in to investigate just about every conceivable mishap related to weather. He approaches his work with the passion of someone who can remember pressing his nose against the window to watch a snowfall during his New Jersey childhood. He went on to found a weather club in high school, give weather announcements over the school’s public address system, and eventually work for a cable TV weather show, where he pinned cutouts of rainclouds on a bulletin board.
“The whole nine yards,” he says.
He went on to get a bachelor’s in science degree in meteorology. His respect for the scientific method combined with his love for weather led to an investigative style remarkably like that of some old-school TV detective such as Jack Webb of Dragnet.
“Just the facts, ma’am,” Altschule says, joking but not. “A lot of times, if the attorneys don’t like what they hear, they say thank you very much, and I’m done.”
Altschule—based in Albany, but sometimes working as far away as the Philippines—has investigated 2,299 cases at most recent count, including car accidents on icy roads and injuries aboard cruise ships in high seas. The 59 times he has testified in court include a double homicide in which the accused insisted he was snowboarding at the time of the crime. Altschule reported that there had been “no snow on exposed, untreated, and undisturbed surfaces” in that particular place on that specific day. He further reported that it had been raining.
“Pouring all day,” he says.
The majority of Altschule’s cases are slip-and-falls. And a record number are coming to him during this winter of seemingly unending snow and cold.
“This whole winter has been crazy,” he says. “Now I’m hearing that there’s a big salt shortage. It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.”
He is being contacted by potential defendants even before a possible lawsuit has been filed.
“I’m getting a lot of phone calls from insurance companies, adjusters, claims reps, and private companies,” Altschule says. “A lot of people want to know early on whether they have some sort of defense.”
One supermarket has reported dozens of cases in a week.
“Just that one establishment,” he says. “And that was in mid-January, before the last three winter storms.”
His ultimate task in all cases is essentially the same.
“They want to know what the weather conditions were and weren’t,” he says. “My job is just to provide a true and accurate understanding of what the weather conditions were, based on what we call sound scientific practices and official weather data.”
In slip-and-falls, the specific time can be particularly important, as many jurisdictions observe what is known as the Storm in Progress Doctrine, which allows a property owner a grace period to clear away ice and snow after the cessation of the weather event. The issue can be complicated by a thaw followed by a freeze, or by pre-existing ice.
If any cases arise out of the decision to keep the New York City schools open on Thursday, Altschule may very well be called upon to investigate. He can be counted upon to offer just the facts, whatever Roker or de Blasio may have tweeted.
Altschule’s initial opinion upon a review of the immediately available facts is strongly in favor of the NWS.
“This was very well forecast,” the weather detective says.