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Columbia teen forecasts Hurricane Irene's track

When Connor Meehan was little, he was terrified of thunderstorms, so much so that his mother had to soothe him whenever one hit the area.

But on Saturday, Aug. 27, as Hurricane Irene came barreling up the coast, the 17-year-old senior at Atholton High School was eagerly awaiting its arrival at his home in Columbia.

"I've been watching outside the whole time, waiting for it to crank up," he said at about 7 p.m. Saturday. "This has been a really exciting weekend for me."

The excitement is both personal and professional.

As the lead forecaster for Central Maryland at the popular blog FootsForecast.org, Meehan is in charge of putting out storm forecasts that thousands of people in the area check, including the 45,000 fans of the blog's local Facebook page.

The blog, started in 2004 by Rich Foot, a science teacher at Baltimore County's Crossroads Center in White Marsh, has gained massive popularity over the years as the students who create its forecasts – who are from all over the country – have developed a reputation for accuracy.

Meehan, a "Weather Channel junkie" according to his mother Susan Hartz, first got involved last winter, when he saw the blog was looking for new team members and asked his mother what she thought about his applying.

"Connor said, 'Well, should I do it?' " Hartz said. "And I said, 'Why not? Go ahead and do it! What have you got to lose?' "

Meehan applied, and made the team.

"I guess they saw some potential," he said.

Fast forward to this week, during which Meehan has been spending six hours a day compiling meteorological information and drafting predictions for Irene. He's been meticulously calculating wind speeds and rainfall and storm surge, slicing up the state's central region into zones of impact. And he's been in endless contact with other members of the FootsForecast team via Facebook group chat, comparing notes and delegating tasks.

"With all the data you can imagine, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] data, all kinds of stuff, listening to professionals, I'm putting it all together and creating a forecast that is easier for non-weather-savvy people to understand," he said.

Not that he's complaining.

"Yeah, it's a lot of work, but it's work I love dealing with, and it's really exciting to have this high impact weather event in our area," he said.

According to Aaron Salter, a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County from Westminster who is director of team operations for FootsForecast, Meehan stepped into the "huge role" of Central Maryland's lead forecaster at the beginning of this summer, and took to it naturally.

"Connor's been doing a great job, handling his role very well and being very professional about it," Salter said.

In turn, the job has given Meehan great opportunities, he said.

On Friday, Aug. 26, Meehan spent some time at Howard County's emergency operations center, working with the emergency management personnel there drafting forecasts for Irene and chatting about the weather and emergency field, which he hopes to enter one day.

He already has his eye on Penn State, which has a strong meteorology program, he said.

"Definitely I would love to do this for the rest of my life," he said. "It's a primary goal for me to do this career-wise."

According to his mother, Meehan's experience with FootsForecast has reshaped his future.

"It's taught him responsibility, commitment," Hartz said. "He's always been a good kid, but was never really committed to anything, so this has been quite a life changer. It's helped him do better in school, given him some goals for the future."

This summer, Meehan balanced a full-time job with his forecasting duties. And he has an internship with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab lined up for his senior year.

His forecasting duties have become an impressive item on his resume, his mother said, and he's now pursuing college scholarships that he never would have thought of before.

"There's always that pivotal moment in a young person's life when they realize what their interest is, and are presented with an opportunity that they may never have had, had they not gotten involved," Hartz said.

For Meehan, that moment was finding his passion tracking storms just like Irene.

"The next model comes out, and you're like, 'Oh my God, it's going to be so cool,' " he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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