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Bad-weather Friends

Hurricanecity.com and other weather Web sites are filled with information and in-depth weather discussions.

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Living near the Gulf Coast makes us all hurricane experts of a sort. We may not know that the terms "hurricane" and "typhoon" are region-specific names for a strong "tropical cyclone." And we may not be able to explain that "tropical cyclone" is the generic term for a non-frontal synoptic scale low-pressure system over tropical or sub-tropical waters with organized convection (i.e. thunderstorm activity) and definite cyclonic surface wind circulation. Still, we know hurricanes -- intimately.

Every summer, our ears perk up at the slightest mention of a storm. We share our expert opinions at the grocery store about warm water in the Gulf and low-pressure systems from the North. We tell stories about all of the near misses and a few of the direct hits, which in technical terms denotes our "valuable field experience."

What we truly may not know, however, is that there is a wealth of alternative weather resources out there made for communities like ours with a desire to know more than what the mainstream news media tell us. Web sites like www.hurricanecity.com and www.hurricanetrack.com keep tabs on all of the latest happenings in the Gulf and have reports from weather aficionados and storm chasers. With a new season of storms in full swing following the "big one" last year, many folks are paying more attention to weather information, and hurricane Web site activity is on the rise.

Evacuees who were forced to rely on CNN for hurricane coverage in 2005 experienced frustration with generic reports about the French Quarter and a lack of specific weather information for their neighborhoods. Pam O'Brien, a native New Orleanian who has been witness to all of the region's storms since Hurricane Betsy, went to hurricanecity.com last summer in search of more information.

"After a miserable evacuation during Ivan, I tried to figure out a good way to keep on top of things," she says. Her boss recommended hurricanecity.com, and she became hooked on the site's constant updates and online community of weather buffs. "It's mostly amateur meteorologists, but they are really weather geeks," O'Brien says. "There are people on there that must not do anything else. I don't even know if they sleep."

The site is packed with weather information, including links to Caribbean radio stations, live weather data-gathering buoys in the Atlantic Ocean and a list of the top 50 hurricane cities. Surprisingly, New Orleans does not crack the top 50, despite being brushed by a hurricane or tropical storm every 3.75 years on average and taking direct hits, which is defined to be within 40 miles, about every 12.27 years. Grand Cayman in the Caribbean is currently No. 1, and Louisiana's Grand Isle holds ninth place.

Hurricanecity.com is run by Jim Williams, who gives a daily and weekly video broadcast of weather forecasts. Williams, though holding no official degrees in meteorology, has been studying weather since he was 15 and living in south Florida. He stops short of calling himself an expert -- he admits you need a degree for that -- but he maintains that he and others who frequent his site are just as, if not more, knowledgeable than the average meteorologist. His credibility resides in his loyal fan base, which gives his site 5,000 to 40,000 hits a day, depending on storm activity. He also proudly boasts a 60 to 80 percent accuracy rate on his forecasts.

"What you're going to get on a site like mine compared to a CNN," says Williams, "is you're going to get more in-depth statistical value and more of a connection with other people with a shared interest on the message board." Williams has managed to piece together information and crunch data from various hurricane databases and statistics he has compiled since he was a teenager to produce digestible information about each city that is threatened by hurricanes each year -- and provide an overview of current weather happenings.

O'Brien says she now checks hurricanecity.com before she checks her email. "These people, as soon as any kind of convection develops off the coast of Africa, they're all watching it, and they're really pretty good about predicting whether it's going to turn into something or not."

Recently, as the first set of storms developed post-Katrina, activity on the site has been up. "I was checking the site every five minutes," says O'Brien referring to Tropical Storm Chris. Williams agrees that since Katrina, there has been increased interest in his site and for more detailed weather information.

While more casual weather watchers have flocked to hurricanecity.com, O'Brien cautions newcomers to make sure they take their weather seriously when perusing the site. During a slow weather day, she started up a conversation on the message board about New Orleans recipes. Weather die-hards hastened to reprimand her for getting off topic. There was such an uproar that members set up another Web site, hcfans.net, for hurricanecity visitors to discuss topics not directly related to weather.

The weather aficionado community is bigger than one might expect; devotees follow events such as the national hurricane conference and regularly tap into other online communities. The National Hurricane Center (www.nhc.noaa.gov) anchors them as well as the mainstream media with information-gathering techniques that include hurricane-hunter planes that fly directly into the storms. The center echoes the community's playful attitude toward weather with notes on its Web site such as the one, found under its definition of the term "tropical depression" that reads: "This is not to be confused with the condition mid-latitude people get during a long, cold and grey winter wishing they could be closer to the equator."

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