The man's no flake; CONVERSATIONS


We can't say we weren't warned.

Sure, the National Weather Service neglected to mention that a major blizzard was heading our way last month, robbing us of the chance to race to the supermarket and fight for the last jar of peanut butter.

But at least one person knew what was coming, even if the big forecasters' high-tech computers failed them. A man who studies lunar phases, sunspots and ocean currents accurately predicted the surprise storm of 2000. And he knew it four months ago.

William O'Toole, for 30 years the weather prognosticator for the annual Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, talks about beating the big guys and -- brrrrr! -- warns us not to put away our shovels just yet.

What's your secret?

Right now I use the Herschel chart, which says weather is influenced by the time of day the moon changes phases -- full moon, new moon, first quarter, last quarter -- and that's my first approach. My second approach is to factor sunspots into that. And thirdly, the Pacific Ocean currents.

What has happened to you since your predictions proved dead-on?

I've done about a dozen and a half interviews in the last week and a half. Normally, in a slow year, I might do a dozen interviews in the whole year, mostly in September or October when the almanack hits the newsstands. A number of people also called and said, "I just heard about your almanack on Tom Brokaw." My father-in-law said, "Watch out, those people at the National Weather Service are going to be upset with you."

Can we ever trust the big guys again?

Oh, yeah. I don't know what the most recent problem [was] ... but as of [that] Monday evening [before the storm], they didn't pick [it] up until about right before 10 o'clock news.

Were you prepared for the snowstorm yourself?

I hadn't looked in the almanack, and my wife and I were listening to [the radio] at midnight and heard the winter weather advisory for heavy snow beginning about 2:30 in the morning in Washington, and heavy snow possibly accumulating 4 to 6 inches. I said to my wife, "I think I had this predicted!"

Any more snow in store for us this winter?

I think Punxsutawney Phil was correct -- he saw his shadow -- so six more weeks of winter. I expect some big storms, one around February 19 or 20, and the other on or about St. Patrick's Day on March 17. The one in March may be all rain or may be a mix of rain or snow. I expect it to be a severe nor'easter.

What's the weirdest weather phenomenon you've predicted?

I began putting in tornado watches seven or eight years ago. The one for 1999 says severe thunderstorms and tornadoes possible in the mid-Atlantic region on or about the following dates. Then, last Aug. 14, a tornado touched down just west of Frederick and did a lot of damage. ... That was included in my tornado watch. I didn't realize it until a week and a half later.

What was your biggest goof?

I had predicted three tropical storms or remnants of hurricanes this fall and we only got one or two of them.

That doesn't seem too bad. You must have had bigger goofs.

I'm sure there have been a number over the years, but I tend to remember the successes.

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