Outside war, weather has been the deadliest form of disaster in American history. It was a particularly brutal killer in the late 1800s, with a surprise blizzard that took the lives of dozens of small children, frozen in their tracks on the walk home from school, and an apocalyptic hurricane that struck Southeast Texas and drowned several thousand people.
The organization that would eventually become the National Weather Service was born during that turbulent period to better understand how and when weather could strike people dead without warning. Its mission hasn’t changed much since then. In a way, it is the purest form of government — it protects lives and property.
“The Coming Storm” by Michael Lewis — available exclusively as an audiobook on Audible — is about those people who make weather accessible and save thousands of lives every year by predicting impending doom. Notably, the book is also about the National Weather Service’s uncertain future in the hands of Barry Myers, President Trump’s nominee to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Lewis, who also narrates his book, wastes no time explaining the life-or-death importance of the National Weather Service and why, no matter how trivial or banal you believe weather forecasting to be, Americans should be critically aware of changes the Trump administration is ostensibly proposing to one of the nation’s earliest defense organizations.
The NOAA oversees the National Weather Service. Myers is the CEO of AccuWeather, a private, family-owned company that sells forecasts and weather data and generally tries to monetize things that taxpayers can get for free. To that end, Myers views the National Weather Service as competition. He once argued, in legislation proposed by then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), that the government should get out of the forecasting business.
“Pause a moment to consider the audacity of that maneuver,” Lewis says. “A private company, whose weather predictions were totally dependent on the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. taxpayer to gather the data necessary for those predictions, and on decades of intellectual weather work sponsored by the U.S. taxpayer, and on international data sharing treaties made on behalf of the U.S. taxpayer, and on the very forecasts that the National Weather Service generated, was, in effect, trying to force the U.S. taxpayer to pay all over again for what the National Weather Service might be able to tell them for free.”
Lewis breaks down a complicated subject — as he has done in “The Big Short” and “Flash Boys,” among others — into manageable and entertaining pieces. In essence, Myers thinks the NOAA should be no more than a data provider and that Americans should pay companies such as AccuWeather to interpret the taxpayer-funded data for them.
The nomination of Myers is a departure from past picks. Not only does he not have a background in science (he once admitted he was a horrible student and was “never interested in learning”), the value he sees in forecasts is financial, rather than altruistic.
Consider what former NOAA director Kathryn Sullivan did after a 2011 tornado struck Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people. Sullivan wanted to understand why, if forecasts had improved immensely in recent decades, people were still being killed by the weather. In response, she built an entire program — Weather-Ready Nation — to understand the way people interpret and react to dire warnings.
Lewis compares that to AccuWeather’s approach, which is to withhold what they consider the best information from everyone but their paying customers.
After a strange winter tornado touched down in southern Louisiana in February 2017, AccuWeather distributed a press release saying it issued a warning to its customers well in advance of the National Weather Service warning. It’s just one example of how AccuWeather claims to have better information than the Weather Service, but that you’ll have to pay to see it and, in Lewis’s words, God help the rest of us.
The audiobook is almost shockingly brief. At just 2½ hours, barely longer than a podcast episode, Lewis has time to only touch on the fascinating background of Sullivan (who also happens to be the first American woman to walk in space) before leaving her story hanging on the road to other important topics — big data and its role in the weather enterprise; the lack of expertise in the political appointees at the Commerce Department; the government’s responsibility to keep its citizens safe; the worrying inability of people to imagine that a tornado could actually strike them.
Each of those topics deserves several chapters of its own, but Lewis doesn’t let the verbose be the enemy of the blunt.
If Lewis leaves you with only one idea, shared widely among the meteorological community, it’s that the National Weather Service is a thankless, mission-driven organization that saves thousands of lives every year, and turning over that organization to someone who has made it his life’s mission to profit from the very data and warnings by which those lives are saved would be a grave mistake.
Angela Fritz is deputy weather editor at The Washington Post.
By Michael Lewis. $4.33.