Hurricane Forecasters Aren’t Tweeting About Your Personal Life, They Swear

Kate was a “poorly organized depression.” The government agency says it wasn’t personal.,

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“I can relate to that hurricane” is not a thought anyone wants to think.

But on several occasions this year, the National Hurricane Center, a government agency that offers crucial updates and forecasts, has appeared to invite unflattering personal comparisons in the way it has written about the storms. That, at least, is how many Twitter users have perceived them when the agency has tweeted about them.

Kate Still a Poorly Organized Depression,” one read, prompting thousands of retweets containing variations of “me, too” responses from Kates and non-Kates as the storm strengthened and quickly weakened a few weeks ago.

Struggling Kate Not Expected to Last Much Longer,” another said.

wow ok shots fired but pretty accurate https://t.co/m2YGR3NKga

— katevoegele (@katevoegele)

September 1, 2021

As the storms kept coming, forecasters appeared to be having a bit of fun.

Rose Might Not Bloom Into a Much Stronger Storm,” read one for the tropical storm that formed last week off the western coast of Africa; a later update said Rose was “Going Through a Rough Patch.”

And as Peter neared its end this week, the agency reported that the “Depression Peters Out.”

It has left some people wondering: Is the National Hurricane Center, a very-serious organization whose communications can directly save lives, hamming it up for a Twitter audience? Is it doing this on purpose?

That is decidedly not the case, said Dr. Michael Brennan, the branch chief of the N.H.C.’s Hurricane Specialist Unit, which is tasked with writing, several times a day, updates for the public on where a storm is and where it’s going next.

OK, the puns were on purpose, he admitted.

But, he said, the agency’s forecasters take a lighthearted tone only when a storm presents no threat to land or life — Peter and Rose, which were relatively small storms, swirled in the Atlantic, but it was clear when the punny headlines were created that they would not be destructive.

The other ones that have received attention on Twitter — including struggling Kate, “Large Larry” and “Small Sam” — were not written with virality in mind, he insisted.

“We’re not intentionally trying to be tongue-in-cheek,” Dr. Brennan said. “But sometimes people take them and run with them.”

The updates, including the headlines, are written by individual forecasters assigned to the storms and read by another forecaster before they are published, he said.

Much like in a traditional newsroom, forecasters are always looking to vary the language they use. There are only so many ways to say a storm is weakening, Dr. Brennan said.

And since the forecasters are communicating to the general public, hoping to reach as many people as possible, they aim to use everyday language, avoiding the technical meteorological jargon that most people wouldn’t understand, he said.

The occasional lighthearted headline on a nonthreatening storm might help more people come across their Twitter account and updates — @NHC_Atlantic, @NWS — which could matter if that means they follow along when a more serious storm rises, he said.

But, Dr. Brennan added, they would never be glib in a life-threatening situation, even if it would help gain attention.

“We write hundreds of headlines and advisories,” he said, “and I think a lot of them are trying to be pretty straightforward about what we’re seeing or what we’re forecasting.”

So on Friday, the Hurricane Center played it straight with the latest storm: “Sam is now a hurricane over the central tropical Atlantic. Expected to continue to rapidly strengthen and become a major hurricane tonight or early Saturday.”

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