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Atlanta floods: Did weather forecasters blow it?

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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:06 PM
Original message
Atlanta floods: Did weather forecasters blow it?
By now, most of you know that the Atlanta area is just starting to clean up after record flooding the past several days. The flooding surprised me almost as much as how much the meteorologists at the NWS, in the media, on the Web (Weather Underground, etc.) completely missed what to me were warning signs that just screamed "head for the hills!"

Hear me out on this. I'm not a meteorologist. I did major in meteorology, for all of one year. And that was back in the late 1960s, before the Web, ubiquitous Doppler radar, and sophisticated WX satellites. I know, that's like saying, "But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express!" But still...

Last Wednesday (9/16) we went to Grady Hospital downtown to visit a friend. We knew that there was a "chance of rain", and prepared accordingly. We were not prepared for the monsoon downpours, interspersed by stretches of partial sunshine that greeted us. Even then, there was minor street flooding. When we finally got home, I fired up the PC, accessed the usual sites, and saw that a very disorganized tropical system (too weak to earn a name or status as an actual tropical storm) had been moving from the Gulf over Louisiana and Texas. It was spinning out classic rain bands, mostly to the east.

Through Thursday and Friday, and over the weekend, the mess that was the center of this system slowly crawled up the Mississippi River valley, finally ending up over western Kentucky and southern Illinois on Sunday. All the while, it was spinning out rain bands, mostly to the south and east. Every day (and night) was a consistent pattern in Atlanta. 30 minutes to an hour (or more) of partial sunshine (or nightlight) followed by 30 minutes to an hour (or more) of rain. Sometimes sprinkles, sometimes torrents where you couldn't see across the street. I told my family that this has the potential to be very serious. Saturday, rainfall totals ranged from 1" to 3", depending on where you were. Sunday, it was 3 1/2" to 5". Sunday night, my visiting brother-in-law came home from an evening out, drenched from the waist down. He had an umbrella. But street flooding (plus the wake from passing cars splashing through curbside lakes) had soaked his jeans and boots. I told him, half jokingly, that we should think about building an ark. We laughed.

That (Sunday) night, the media first started posting flood advisories.

Monday (yesterday) we got clobbered. The same "rain band" pattern, too. Stretches of partial clearing, followed by periods of rain that ranged from light showers to cloudbursts. Over and over again. This is classic tropical storm behavior. And it had been going on for close to a week, thanks to that stalled storm. Streams overflowed. Highways, including Atlanta's busiest, the Downtown Connector (I-75, I-85) were closed by high water. Hartsfield Jackson flights were delayed for hours.

And today (Tuesday) we learn that entire neighborhoods in the Atlanta area have been flooded or completely cut off by flooding streams that are usually mere trickles. Many of the people affected do not have flood insurance, because they were told (and believed) that they weren't even close to a flood plain. These folks are looking at financial neutron bombs. Fortunately, the death toll was minimal (one is too many, but it could have been much worse than losing 5 lives), but the property damage is staggering. It's by no means Katrina. But it's bad. At least the rain has stopped.

Did weather forecasters blow it?? Part of me says they did. If an amateur like me can look at weather maps and data last Thursday, after being drenched on Wednesday, and conclude "this could be awful", why didn't anyone else pick up on it?

Then again, maybe I'm the "Holiday Inn Express" guy, and I just got "lucky".

And lucky we were. Our condo is next to a flood plain of a creek that's a tributary of Peachtree Creek. The water, which we can see from our windows, got high, but it never rose beyond the area where development has been banned because of the flood risk. And we're on the 3rd floor, so that's an extra 20 vertical feet (at least) of wiggle room.

But I have to wonder. I can't have been the only person who wasn't surprised by this. And what does that say about the state of weather forecasting today?

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virgogal Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:08 PM
Response to Original message
1. Forecasters are human----humans aren't perfect.
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Skittles Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:26 PM
Response to Reply #1
12. my dad was a meteorologist
Edited on Tue Sep-22-09 08:11 PM by Skittles
to complainers he would say, "YOU GO UP AGAINST MOTHER NATURE; SEE HOW YOU DO"
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virgogal Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:30 PM
Response to Reply #12
14.  Your dad sounds like a very smart guy.
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mwooldri Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 09:15 PM
Response to Reply #1
29. Exactly. Even Michael Fish missed the big one that hit England in 1987...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKPQLl5rupg

That snippet was from the late evening news just before closedown... but the hurricane hit a few hours later... big destruction.

Mark.
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BlooInBloo Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:09 PM
Response to Original message
2. "what does that say about the state of weather forecasting today?"...
That people who know nothing about math shouldn't talk about it.
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:17 PM
Response to Reply #2
5. It's more than math
I don't exactly see your point, and that may be my shortcoming, but I do know that meteorology isn't just plugging in the numbers. A good forecaster listens to his or her "gut" as the those numbers are being crunched.
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BlooInBloo Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:19 PM
Response to Reply #5
8. "I don't exactly see your point" - Yes, I know you dont.
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:26 PM
Response to Reply #8
11. Not that I didn't try.
Maybe you don't see my point, either. Sorry.
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BlooInBloo Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 08:01 PM
Response to Reply #11
22. ....
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory

Finding the relevant paragraph is left as an exercise for the reader.

(We're a stupid, stupid country.)
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 08:48 PM
Response to Reply #22
23. All you had to say was "chaos theory"
Edited on Tue Sep-22-09 09:01 PM by ovidsen
Or throw in a reference to the "butterfly effect", and you would have been perfectly clear and I would have seen your point much more easily. In fact, I would have agreed with you, noting that one of the things chaos doesn't/can't explain is how to nail down that gray zone between math absolutes and attempts to calculate something where infinite variables are at play.

If we're a "stupid, stupid" country, it may have something to do with the atrocious lack of communication skills suffered by many people. Add some arrogance, and the chance that your message will be understood drop off a cliff.

Suggestion: try to be a little less vague and a little less snotty next time. They don't become you.

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BlooInBloo Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 08:58 PM
Response to Reply #23
24. There was nothing remotely vague about my post. There was only 1 thing I could reasonably have meant
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 09:10 PM
Response to Reply #24
26. Communications 101
"...people who know nothing about math shouldn't talk about it."

Can't get more vague than that. Add the condescension (you assume I know nothing about math. You are so wrong. But we all know what happens when someone assumes), and what you get are stupid little substrings like this one. I'm not questioning your smarts. I am questioning, at least in this case, your ability to make a point.

If you can't get a point across, chances are the problem is you.

Now stop being so snotty. :)

Goodnight!
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BlooInBloo Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 09:12 PM
Response to Reply #26
27. Your question would not have been asked by someone who knew math. It just wouldn't.
Edited on Tue Sep-22-09 09:34 PM by BlooInBloo
And I'm sorry you also don't recognize the difference between an assumption and a conclusion.
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 09:47 PM
Response to Reply #27
31. If you're asking about my OP, you are so wrong.
I don't fault forecasters who can't predict exactly when or where a tornado might hit. All they can do is issue watches and warnings. For the same reason, I can't criticize the margins of error employed by hurricane forecasters. They're giving chaos it's due.

But here in Atlanta, the TV forecasting gurus are already saying that they believed there was a possibility that the Gulf tropical disturbance that triggered this mess could be disruptive. The honest ones are saying they made a judgment call by not stressing that more directly. I give them 2 points for candor, which is a plus when you're in a profession where after absorbing who knows how many models and how many printouts, it really comes down to your gut.

And the area affected covered the entire Southeast. That's 10s of thousands of square miles. Not just the dots on a map where a twister touches down, or the narrow path of a hurricane. It's meteorology's take on the Heisenberg principle. The larger the area that could be affected by a weather event, the easier it is to give a heads up to the people who should be concerned. For whatever reason, that didn't happen in this case.

I stand by my OP. And you really should work on your communications skills.
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positrac Donating Member (82 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:12 PM
Response to Original message
3. Much of meteorology nowadays is politics. The science is a thousand times improved but
the liability, real or perceived, is also a thousand times greater. The weather guys have to walk that impossibly thin line between meteorological caution and financial conservation. In some scenarios, the costs (both fiscal and human) of prudence, like evacuations, can't be evaluated in contrast to having no warnings.
Everyone complains....well, you know...
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:25 PM
Response to Reply #3
9. There's truth in what you posted
I'd go so far as to expand "politics" to include the field of human behavior.

Forecasters, whether they're with the government or the media or whatever are acutely aware of the "cry wolf" factor. If they issue dire warnings about events that never occur, it's not long before people stop paying attention to them.

Most of these professionals aren't worried about property damage. You can't turn back a flood. They are acutely concerned about human lives. If people ignore their warnings (as some did during Katrina) because they're dismissed as just another false alarm, you end up with avoidable human losses that drive meteorologists who take this responsibility very seriously just bonkers.

The Atlanta floods may fall into this category.
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stray cat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:14 PM
Response to Original message
4. Shit happens - its naive to not believe some things can't be controlled or forecast
pandemics work the same way.
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Louisiana1976 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:18 PM
Response to Original message
6. Mark Twain once said,
"Everybody talks about the weather. Nobody does anything about it."
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armyowalgreens Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:18 PM
Response to Original message
7. Your streams cannot handle 5" a day? That's weird.
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:28 PM
Response to Reply #7
13. Not for 6 days in a row.
I'll wager most places (especially urban) in the US would have a problem dealing with 2 1/2 feet of rain in less than a week. Where can the water go?
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ProdigalJunkMail Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:44 PM
Response to Reply #7
20. the final flooding started after DAYS of consistent rain
and then the hammer-stroke on Sunday night. Some areas had 15" or more. Our home got a little more than 9". This is in a 23 hour period where the ground was already soaked and could hold no more water on the surface.

So...not so weird after all...

sP
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 09:00 PM
Response to Reply #20
25. Very true!
I'm just a little surprised that none of the Atlanta forecasts (and I admit I didn't check out every one of them in real time) didn't even mention the possibility of flooding until Monday morning. While the amount of rain Sunday night was significant, rain (possibly heavy at times) was in the forecast, and I'd thought that after 5 days of an inch, 2 inches or more a day, they would have suggested that there was a possibility that a few creeks might overflow. Or worse.

It seemed that everybody but us was caught by surprise. Well, we were half surprised. Over the years, my family has learned to take my forecasts of "impending doom" with large grains of salt. ;)

I'm pretty close to being right most of the time, but when I'm wrong, he wife and others are really glad they got info from other sources and we didn't board up the windows, load up the car and head for the hills.
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Thirtieschild Donating Member (978 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:25 PM
Response to Original message
10. Maybe you should reconsider a career in meteorology.
Friends in Atlanta had been talking about "all the rain" for days, one even mentioned five inches on Sunday. We lived in Atlanta for 39 years, and our street would flood from curb to curb during a brief cloudburst, once the water even moved Mr. Thirty's MG several feet. The problem seemed to be a storm drain that overflowed and was never fixed - I can't imagine what happened to the street with 10 or so inches. We lived near a tributary of South Peachtree Creek (Morningside) and I remember controvesy about building condos near the flood plain. Would you mind sharing where on the creek you live? Thanks.
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:31 PM
Response to Reply #10
15. I fear meteorology would be the worse for my presence!
I switched majors in 1970 because I really couldn't handle all the math. I had the capacity, but not the patience.

We live in Buckhead, just off Pharr Road, a block west of Peachtree.
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islandmkl Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:33 PM
Response to Original message
16. one thing i DO know...
weatherpeople can guess, postulate, forecast, predict, WHATEVER by whatever means, the weather...but they sure as hell don't control nor cause it...

so, you knew, but a couple of million of your atlantan cohorts couldn't see it...maybe you should volunteer at the weather service...

a 'freak' storm is supposed to be predicted by..who?

you should have told more people ahead of time...

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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:37 PM
Response to Reply #16
18. I told as many people as I could.
I didn't call up talk shows or the TV stations to scream "the sky is falling" because I figured I'd be dismissed as a nutcase. "Who is this guy who thinks he's better than the Weather Channel??"

Hindsight is 20/20, but maybe I should have.
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MiniMe Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:34 PM
Response to Original message
17. It's all Sonny Perdue's fault
First, he had everybody pray for rain 2 years ago. Then he did a rain dance. It took 2 years, but it worked. If fact, it worked a little too well. So my money is on Sonny Perdue. And after he causes the problem, he wants the government to bail him out. What nerve.


Sarcasm in case you can't tell.
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 09:55 PM
Response to Reply #17
32. Oh, I could tell...
In the same spirit, after I saw a headline in the Web edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution yesterday reading "Lake Lanier at record levels", I send them a Vent. "Record levels? You had this story last year!"

A reference, for those not familiar with the Atlanta area, to the fact that because of chronic drought, Lake Lanier (the Atlanta area's main reservoir) was at unheard of lows back then. I guess the editors didn't think it was funny, or didn't appreciate my sarcasm. They didn't print it.

I'm blaming that on Sonny Perdue, too. :sarcasm:
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Liberal Veteran Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:41 PM
Response to Original message
19. Stuff like this is not uncommon. Mom Nat is tricksy.
Such as last winter when they forecast maybe 1 to 3 inches of snow for our area and we ended up with two feet of snow overnight.
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CatWoman Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 07:53 PM
Response to Original message
21. after I moved here, I would (and still do) tell my family members
"now I can relate to Brook Benson's 'Rainy Night in Georgia'".

http://www.metrolyrics.com/rainy-night-in-georgia-lyric...
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 09:25 PM
Response to Reply #21
30. Such a good song!
The only times I've seen rain like this was during the 1972 floods in upstate NY and eastern PA that were caused by what was left of Hurricane Agnes, which had the audacity to stall over us and drop several feet of rain over several days. My family came this close to losing our house.

And then there are California "winters". Except in the mountains (where it snows), the downpours you get nearly every day support those old song lyrics "It never rains in sunny California. But it pours, man it pours." With the possible exception of this past weekend in Atlanta, I've never seen it rain as hard in my life as I have on some February days around LA, SF, and the Central Valley. Forget the umbrella and raincoat. You need scuba gear and a wetsuit. But at least it's in the forecast, and except for the occasional mudslide, people have learned to deal with it, 'cause it's like that every winter.

But this Atlanta storm? I can't agree with the professional forecasters who are calling it a "hundred year event". Keep saying that, and it'll happen again next week!

:loveya:

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Phoebe Loosinhouse Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 09:14 PM
Response to Original message
28. When you get that much rain, the trees just start to topple over
when the ground becomes too saturated to hold the roots. If you live in an area with a high water table, the roots are usually shallow anyway.

The drought might have actually helped a little bit if it made the roots systems go deeper than normal.
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hedgehog Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 10:09 PM
Response to Original message
33. The last few years I've noticed that our forecasts seem to be slightly
off more and more often. Forecasts are based on past observations; when A ,B and C happen, D should follow 9 times out of 10. What happens now is that if a cold front is predicted to drop temperatures tomorrow, the temperatures drop the day after and not as far as predicted. A brief rain shower turns into an all day down pour. Snowfall that was supposed to stay north of the Thruway covers areas north and south of the Thruway. You can see where the prediction would have been right except for some factor that didn't enter the equation. Global warming?
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Sep-23-09 01:48 AM
Response to Reply #33
36. It may be just the math.
BlooInBloo makes a points in some otherwise obtuse posts above. Forecasting today has a lot to do with mathematics (and the sheer volume and speed with which they can be processed by computers). Meteorologists these days depend more and more on these number crunchers, but they still pay attention to their gut. And there's also the unavoidable fact with so many variables being thrown into the mix (and more added all the time), the more there is a possibility of errors. The more precise forecasters try to be, the biger is the room for error.

I'm not sure that global change is making forecasts more prone to error, but I sure wouldn't rule it out. It may be years before we know for certain.

Just my 2 cents worth!
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Holly_Hobby Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 10:47 PM
Response to Original message
34. Do you remember when the CNN building was hit by a
tornado last year? The meteorologist on duty in the CNN building didn't even know it was coming.

I think they blew it then and they blew it with the flooding.

I hope you dry out soon.
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Skip Intro Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-22-09 10:59 PM
Response to Original message
35. Not Miss Cleo, but they do pretty well at predicting immediate future weather.
Taking into account models, history, etc, they are charged with predicting future conditions of an ever-changing unknown and they do better and better.

It's not a perfect science, at least at our current level of understanding.

Anybody else remember the push to seize control of weather info gathering and reporting by the bush regime?
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ovidsen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Sep-23-09 01:59 AM
Response to Reply #35
37. I do remember the Bush WX coup attempt.
I think the idea of the government taking over meteorology databases was sunk when saner heads realized that it had at least two strikes against it. 1) There are a bunch of private forecasting businesses around. The genie is out of the bottle. Any attempt to put a "socialist" stamp on weather would not only tick off your terminal capitalists who think that all government is evil, it would be impossible. and 2), just about every private WX service shares its data with the NWS, thus saving Uncle Sam some bucks.

I don't know who in the Bush 43 White House came up with that oddball idea, or why it wasn't shot down even before reports of it were leaked to the media.

In other words, typical moran behavior from the doofuses who advised the guy who promises to be the worst president to serve in my lifetime.
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dbt Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Sep-23-09 05:03 AM
Response to Reply #37
38. But wait. There's MORE!
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) spearheaded a move in 2005 (S.517) to establish a "Weather Modification Operations And Research Board." You can read a summary of the bill at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:SN00517:@@...

According to a report dated November 17, 2005, at KWTX.com, the bill was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee.

On December 13, 2005, bu$hco respectfully requested that the Senator "defer further consideration of the bill pending the outcome of an inter-agency discussion of these issues that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would coordinate with the Department of Justice on legal issues, with the Department of State on foreign policy implications, with the Departments of Defense and State on national security implications, and with pertinent research agencies to consider the reasons the U.S. Government previously halted its work in this area." Source: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Weather_Modi...

Just another oddball idea from the bu$h regime, I spoze.

Oh, yeah. The Old Farmer's Almanac 2009 edition said, "Expect a hurricane in late September." Interesting that this rain system is being referred to as a hurricane on land, no?

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