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University of Maryland used a private company to issue a tornado warning. Here's why that could be a problem.

The Washington Post

The University of Maryland’s decision to issue a tornado warning based on a private weather company’s guidance is sparking questions and scrutiny about the accuracy of forecasts and the firm’s role in public institutions.

The tornado warning was issued Monday evening, an alert that triggered howling storm sirens on campus. Among those receiving an alert was Nicholas Schmerr, a professor of geology, who said he was surprised when he received an email about the weather.

“I’m from the Midwest,” Schmerr said. “I grew up in Tornado Alley. I’m sort of this weather nerd, so I went to the National Weather Service to find more info, and there was no warning.”

The tornado warning for Maryland’s campus in College Park was generated by AccuWeather, a private company that sells weather services, including tornado warnings. The National Weather Service had issued no such warning for College Park.

In College Park on Monday evening, campus sirens sounded, and phones buzzed with emails and Twitter notifications.

“A Tornado Warning has been issued for the UMD campus,” the University of Maryland campus police department tweeted. “Seek shelter immediately, avoid windows.”

Eventually, the all-clear was given, the warning was dropped — and there was no tornado.

The public university contracts with AccuWeather for “real-time information on storm paths” approaching the campus, and it contacts the company to discuss the potential impact of a storm, according to a statement from the University of Maryland Police Department.

An AccuWeather spokeswoman said the company partners with dozens of universities and has worked with Maryland for many years.

“In 2001, prior to the AccuWeather partnership, a tornado struck the University of Maryland campus which sadly killed two students,” AccuWeather’s spokeswoman wrote in an email. “AccuWeather’s site specific warnings provide enhanced safety and situational awareness and they are customized to the location and needs of the university.”

AccuWeather said its meteorologists had concerns across the Mid-Atlantic “as conditions appeared to be very favorable for rapidly developing dangerous tornadoes.” The company’s forecasters saw evidence on radar suggesting a threat near the U-Md. campus, the company statement said.

“Given the concentration of students, faculty, staff and visitors at a university with tens of thousands of people present on campus — the safety of people on campus is paramount,” the company said.

AccuWeather and its role in public institutions looms larger now that Barry Myers, the company’s CEO, is President Trump’s choice to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service. Critics say Myers’s lack of expertise and conflicts of interest make him unfit for the position. Myers awaits Senate confirmation.

Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist who served as NOAA administrator from 2009 to 2013, has said she strongly opposes Myers’s nomination because of his “aggressive and sustained actions to undermine” the National Weather Service.

“I have grave concerns about the potential damage that Mr. Myers could do to jeopardize the core ability of NOAA to provide lifesaving and other vital services to Americans,” Lubchenco told The Washington Post in 2017.

AccuWeather has come under fire for inaccurate weather forecasts that have caused confusion and chaos.

On Aug. 21, AccuWeather issued a tornado warning to rail lines in the Chicago area, which subsequently halted service during a busy, rainy rush hour. The National Weather Service issued no warnings that evening, and no tornado was confirmed in the Chicago area.

In January 2016, managers of the Pennsylvania Turnpike relied on outdated forecasts from AccuWeather during a blizzard, leading to more than 500 vehicles being stranded for as many as two nights.

Gary Szatkowski, a former meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, N.J., said having multiple warning sources — especially regarding tornadoes — can sow confusion.

“People don’t really know, per se, where the weather info comes from,” Szatkowski said. “That’s way beyond what most people can process.”

When the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, it means forecasters suspect a tornado is on the ground, and it could indicate a tornado has been confirmed. Warnings usually include strong language about seeking shelter in interior rooms away from windows, preferably in basements or storm shelters.

Jim Lee, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service’s D.C.-Baltimore office, said his forecasters determined Monday’s storm did not pose a tornado threat. He said some local media outlets and emergency managers were talking about the AccuWeather warnings, but he and other forecasters in Sterling, Va., were “busy focusing on our mission . . . to protect lives and property.”

Szatkowski, who was a meteorologist for the National Weather Service from 1980 to 2016, said that while the National Weather Service is the only federal agency that issues tornado warnings, nothing prevents private companies from doing so.

“What do we want to do about a weather organization issuing a tornado warning when the Weather Service does not?” Szatkowski asked.

Jonathan Allen, Maryland’s student body president, was in a meeting at the University of Maryland Hillel when he saw the tornado warning.

Allen, 21, said he planned to reach out to Maryland officials to see why they don’t use information from the National Weather Service but thought it was because the notifications U-Md. received were campus-specific.

“People will find a reason to complain,” he said. “I’d prefer to be way safer and more secure than have to worry about something as serious as that."

Szatkowski said issuing weather warnings is challenging. “If you’re trying to issue warnings, you’re going to issue false alarms,” he said. “Any good organization is going to look at what they’re doing and make sure it’s as accurate as possible.”

AccuWeather said it “documents many cases” where its “accurate warnings are often the only warning issued” or where it was issued before other sources. AccuWeather declined to make that data available to The Post.

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