You expect a weather outfit to let you know if a sweater is needed in the morning. The offer of an accurate body count from Puerto Rico is another matter.
Four weeks after Hurricane Maria wiped out the U.S. territory, Atlanta-based Weather Company did something unusual. Rather than put a friendly focus on the rain and sun to come, the digital forecasting platform devoted its home page to the Puerto Rico’s fight for survival.
To the millions of residents without power, the daily hunt for clean drinking water, and the still uncounted dead. “It’s happening to Americans in America — not in some far-off land,” the Weather Company’s editor-in-chief said.
Last week, there was the forecast of snow in Minnesota at weather.com. But there was also the prominent notation that a tiny company hired without bids to re-wire Puerto Rico “is getting paid $309 an hour for each journeyman line worker, almost 10 times the average rate of such worker in the United States.”
Unprecedented events create unprecedented reactions, as parties involved awake to new concerns and new responsibilities.
Last Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., took to his chamber’s floor to denounce the Trump administration’s “lackluster” response to the devastation on the island.
Of 67 hospitals that are open, Murphy said, fewer than half have electricity — something that “never, ever would be permitted in a U.S. state.”
Two weeks after the 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti, 17,000 U.S. troops were on the island of Hispaniola. Two weeks after Hurricane Maria, Murphy said, only 10,000 U.S. troops were spread across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Murphy spoke in exceedingly stark terms. “The hurricane laid bare a very simple truth that is plain to every resident of the island and every Puerto Rican living in my state. The United States has been screwing Puerto Rico for over 100 years. This is just the latest, most disgusting chapter,” he said.
That a Connecticut senator would speak up for the island might strike you as strange. New York has four times as many stateside Puerto Ricans — more than 1 million. Florida has far more, too.
But at 8 percent of the population (in 2014), Puerto Rican political clout may be strongest in Connecticut.
Likewise, when it comes to Puerto Rico, the Weather Company might also be operating out of enlightened self-interest.
The Weather Company was formerly part of the Weather Channel, a familiar sight at the intersection of I-285 and I-75. The digital arm was acquired by IBM in early 2016. There’s still some content overlap, but the Weather Company moved into its new digs in Brookhaven last week.
The firm also has offices in New York, but two-thirds of its 60-member editorial team remains here.
In addition to ginning up content for weather.com, its mobile-oriented website, the Weather Company makes apps and provides forecasts and data to the private sector, particularly for aviation, energy and insurance companies, as well as for governments.
It takes the elements seriously. Which means it must take climate change and its impact seriously. Everybody talks about the weather. Sooner or later, somebody will have to do something about it.
On mobile devices alone, weather.com reaches about 25 million people a day. Those who click in are usually interested only in whether they need a sweater that morning, editor-in-chief Neil Katz conceded. “Once they’re here, we’ve got a real opportunity to educate them on stories we feel they need to know about.”
When Hurricane Maria hit, the Weather Company sent in a dozen journalists. Half were storm-chasers. “And then another group of people doing more investigative journalism to understand the impact of the storm,” Katz said.
The latter emphasis was new — something not applied to Hurricane Harvey, which came ashore near Houston, or Hurricane Irma, which tore through Florida. “The mainland heals faster than Puerto Rico has. It’s a very different aftermath story than we’re used to in America,” Katz said.
The Weather Company was at the front of the journalistic pack when it came to reporting on Whitefish Energy, the small firm that signed a no-bid, $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to reconstruct large portions of the island’s electrical infrastructure.
The company had only two full-time employees when Maria struck. The firm is based in Whitefish, Mont., the home town of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The Weather Company has hired Marcus Stern, a Pulitzer-winning reporter formerly of the San Diego Union-Tribune, to do more digging.
The firm is also chasing the elusive death toll of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which now stands at 51. “On one hand, it’s hard to know. On the other hand, why is it hard to know? That’s signal of how difficult this rebuild is going to be,” Katz said.
The latest pair of Puerto Rican victims died from an infection that spreads through contaminated water. But given that many of the mountainous portions of the island remain isolated, and necessities scarce, no one believes the count is finished.
“That’s an unusual circumstance for an American storm. That weeks later, someone may die because they don’t have full access to medical care. And it may not be two weeks. It could be a month or more,” the Weather Company editor said.
I asked Katz what kind of reaction he gets when the Weather Company moves beyond the five-day forecast. “There are always a few people who don’t really read what we’re doing and will say, ‘Stay out of politics and just tell me if it’s going to rain.’
“We’re not covering the rat-race politics,” the editor said. “The reaction has been almost overwhelmingly positive.”
By the way, Katz’ people have just finished another project — on the impact of climate change on prisons in Texas. Many of the facilities lack air-conditioning.