On August 24 at 8:20 pm, a 44-year-old moonlighting meteorologist named Eric Berger was nearly finished writing a post for his Houston-centric blog, Space City Weather, titled “Harvey Late Night: Some Final Thursday Thoughts.” He was in his home office. He had just poured himself a glass of cabernet.
He had been looking at the online forecasts from the National Hurricane Center and agreed with their essential conclusions: Harvey was a well-organized storm that would land with hurricane force on the Texas Gulf Coast somewhere between Corpus Christi and Port O’Connor. Berger also backed the center’s belief that the winds would be strong in Houston that weekend, perhaps more than 40 miles per hour. But he was far more worried about the rain. The unanswered question is what happens to Harvey once it reaches the coast, Berger wrote. Where will it go, and will it go fast enough? Houston’s rainfall totals over the next five days depend on this, and we just don’t know.
The considerable majority of modern weather forecasting is aided by computer algorithm. Most hurricane tracking relies on data crunched by various public and private computer models, and the models, which take different variables (temperature, moisture, mass) and consider them in different ways, are not always in agreement. The National Hurricane Center takes input from several models to make its predictions, averaging out their differences, in part because it faces the tallest order in hurricane forecasting: It must say that the hurricane will go here. So must television meteorologists, one of the center’s principal conduits to a concerned public. TV, too, demands a singular answer.
Berger doesn’t have to draw a line. He is a certified meteorologist, but the weather is just a particularly absorbing hobby of his; his primary paying gig is writing about aerospace for Ars Technica (a site that is owned by Conde Nast, which also owns WIRED)1, and he blogs about the weather in his free time. That gives him two luxuries that most front-line meteorologists don’t have: He can value certain models and their ensembles much more heavily than others, untangling as many as 50 different versions of each forecast, and he can also admit doubt. He can explore the subtlety of the weather, marveling at its mysteries, the way he has for his small but loyal community of readers for years, but especially since he established his site in October 2015.
Berger does not generate his forecasts from scratch, pointing his licked finger into the wind and taking readings from the Galileo thermometer on his windowsill. He really does have a Galileo thermometer on his windowsill, but he works out of a home office that he hasn’t otherwise bothered to decorate, with a basic PC and a single monitor on which he toggles between tabs, from forecast to conflicting forecast. In Houston that evening, the US government forecast called for about 15 inches of rain. By then Berger had already begun to wonder.
There is one model he has come to trust and rely on more than any other: the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts’ Integrated Forecasting System, more popularly known in the US as the European model. Funded by 22 EU members and 12 cooperating states, the European model is sometimes shockingly accurate, in part because it’s so well financed and its computing power is stronger than most.
With Harvey, it suggested that the storm would stall over Houston, dumping 25 inches of rain or more before eventually moving on. That synced with Berger’s own analysis of the weather patterns in the atmosphere. He detected a troublesome absence of steering currents, the forces that push hurricanes to wherever they’re headed next, and without those currents, the European model’s forecast of a stall made a lot of sense. Given the sum of the evidence before him, Berger felt confident in one fearsome prediction, and he wrote as much: Big-time floods are coming to Texas.
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It was, at its essence, an informed gut call, and Berger thought carefully about what he would write next. He had made his reputation, such as it was for a leisure-time meteorologist with a city-specific weather blog, by refusing to submit to the hysterical frenzies that competent weather observers dismiss as “storm porn.” He is by nature a fairly skeptical person. His twin passions, space and the weather, share long histories of broken promises and unmet expectations. His site’s motto is “Hype-free forecasts for greater Houston,” mindful of the chaotic and ultimately unnecessary evacuations prompted by Hurricane Rita in 2005. I am not going to sugar-coat this, my friends, he had written in advance of that storm. As a Houston resident and property owner, I am truly mortified right now. Rita and Berger had both missed.
But underplaying weather of dire consequences could lead to a different kind of calamity for his readers. James Spann, Alabama’s longtime weather forecaster of choice, had infamously botched that state’s ice storms of January 2014. Spann had predicted a “dusting” of snow, and unworried commuters headed out on the roads; when that dusting turned out to be a thick layer of ice, Spann shouldered much of the blame for the thousands of people who ended up stranded in their cars, schools, and workplaces overnight. Berger despises alarmism in all its forms. He also didn’t want to bear responsibility for children drowning in their attics.
Berger’s wife, Amanda, was getting their own two daughters ready for bed in their League City apartment, temporary accommodations while the family builds their dream home in nearby Clear Creek. His dog, Bonnie, a Maltese-poodle cross who dislikes all men but him, kept her usual vigilant watch. Berger can be painfully shy. Now he felt possessed by an unusual authority, exercised remotely through the digitally transmitted written word. He took another sip of his wine and returned to his keyboard.
Certainly the Corpus Christi area and points immediately north and west of there will get too much rain, he wrote. Flooding will spread to other parts of Texas too, quite possibly Houston. But right now we can’t say that for certain. As I’ve said, it’s either going to be pretty bad, or really really bad here.
He posted his piece. His site normally averaged somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 views a day. That particular entry received 207,334 over the next 24 hours. A shocked Berger surmised that his core readers were recommending him to their suddenly weather-concerned friends. He had become the center of a kind of storm within the storm.
In the comments, one reader asked what Berger thought the rainfall totals might be in San Antonio, 200 miles to the west. Someone else asked about Colorado County, and another about the neighborhoods near Ellington Field. Another reader wondered whether her husband’s flight out of Hobby Airport on Saturday morning might be delayed. A man named Petey James pointed out that Saturday night was the night of the big fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor, and he wanted to know whether he should risk going to the local bar or pay to watch it at home. A woman named Deb Walters asked whether she should still have the party she had planned to host near Dacus on Saturday afternoon. I’d press ahead at this point, Berger wrote to her. Obviously if things turn ugly Saturday morning, you’ll have to cancel.
The following morning, Friday, August 25, it started to rain, a few drops at first, and then a fairly steady shower. Harvey’s leading edge had come to town, and the models, constantly updated, began to align: Harvey was nearly laser-precise in its construction and massive, and it was also a slow mover. The rain was going to be measured in feet, not inches. Berger sat down at his desk, no wine this time, and wrote another post.
“A very serious flooding situation is coming,” he wrote.
He wrote it two more times for emphasis.
“A very serious flooding situation is coming.
A very serious flooding situation is coming.”
It was 3:15 pm. He hoped Deb Walters had canceled her party.
Since 1980, there have been more than 200 weather and climate events in the United States that have each caused more than $1 billion in damage. Three principal national bodies are charged with predicting their arrivals and effects. The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, keeps watch for tornadoes. The Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, monitors heavy rains. And the National Hurricane Center in Miami minds hurricanes. They have been busy.
In the case of Harvey, all three were involved, funneling their best information to the Houston branch of the National Weather Service, one of its 122 field offices across the country. Each helps turn national forecasts into finely tuned local ones. The Houston office is the only one that shares space with its home county’s Office of Emergency Management—Galveston County in its case—better to coordinate their shared response. It is no accident that their building sits atop a mound and that their offices are on the upper floor. Over the past few decades, greater Houston has grown exponentially from a mosquito-plagued oil port into the fifth-largest metro area in the United States, home to nearly 7 million people. That population explosion, combined with a certain regional antipathy toward civic oversight, has seen former swamps turned into sprawling, unregulated developments. Houston has been built to flood.
Dan Reilly, 52, is the local Warning Coordination Meteorologist, part of the National Weather Service’s round-the-clock professional staff. In a catastrophe-prone city like his, the job is twofold. The first is the forecast. “When something bad is coming, that’s really when we need to be at the top of our game,” he says. Of the three most damaging effects of hurricanes—wind, storm surge, and rain—rain is one of the most difficult to quantify in advance. The heaviest rain typically falls in small pockets, and that level of precision is difficult to attain more than six to 12 hours ahead of its arrival. Houston’s physical size also makes rain forecasts challenging: Each side of the I-10, for instance—one of several highways that serve as boundaries in an otherwise endless city—might receive a substantially different amount.
A good meteorologist is almost always, by definition, skilled at pattern recognition. Weather, like the law, is built on a foundation of similar cases. Veteran meteorologists—Reilly has been in the job for 24 years—mine their memories for analogues. In the early hours of Harvey, Reilly’s team began upping the National Weather Service’s rain forecast to amounts that no one had ever seen: 25 inches, 30, and eventually 50, over a widespread swath of Houston. Reilly set aside everything he knew about the weather and decided to obey the combination of awe and dread he felt in his chest: A killing flood was on its way.
The next part of the job, and perhaps the more important one, is getting the word out. At a time when the weather can be more extreme than ever, and trust in government is low, convincing people to heed your warnings, especially the most severe of them, might now be the weather forecaster’s harder task. The most serious warning when it comes to rain is called a Flash Flood Emergency, and before Harvey, the Houston office had issued that warning on only three occasions. It would soon be used for a fourth.
Berger, sitting behind his Spartan desk that afternoon, anxiety beginning to weigh on him like heat, was first among those who might listen—and to whom others might listen about the coming storm. He wasn’t the government; he was a human being, and somehow the warnings sounded different to their ears coming from him, the kind of measured voice that shines through in a crisis. After he had written his ominous flood forecast three times, he looked out his office window at one of the two garages he keeps. One of them was bursting with new things for his new house, and he began ferrying boxes upstairs to his office, filling the space in front of his desk with new light fixtures, a microwave, and a tub. In between trips, he heard Amanda making arrangements to take shelter, with their daughters, at her sister’s house, built on pilings and tucked away from the wind.
Berger would stay. He would hunker down behind his wall of boxes with his PC and his readers, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, for the duration of the storm. He knew that his city was in serious trouble, and he felt an almost spiritual need to convince his neighbors that it was time for them to share his fears.
The weather started making an impression on Berger in 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison came to town. Berger is from Michigan but had gone to the University of Texas to earn his astronomy degree. He moved to Houston for a girl, first working weekends at the Houston Chronicle before becoming the paper’s designated “SciGuy,” writing mostly about physics, chemistry, and astronomy. He also wrote a little about the weather.
He had just bought his first house near White Oak Bayou. On June 8, a Friday night—what was it about storms and Friday nights?—he went out with some friends to see a Bob Schneider concert. Allison had passed through Houston once already, but now it returned to take a second run at the city. Berger remembers that the sound of the rain on the roof drowned out Schneider, as though there was too much percussion in the mix. After the concert, he and his friends left to wander around midtown, gawking at the water rising on the empty streets.
Berger wrote about the storm. One of his stories, about the drowning deaths of tens of thousands of research animals in the basement of the Texas Medical Center, drew massive national readership. He began having visions—he saw a place for thoughtful written analysis of the weather online. His discussions could be more timely and interactive than the forecasts printed in the paper itself. And unlike TV meteorologists, he needn’t worry about ratings or being available to viewers only at certain designated times.
In June 2005, he started his own blog on the Chronicle’s site. He didn’t yet have any meteorological training; he was just someone who liked talking about the weather. (His colleagues called him “Weather Boy.” It was not a compliment.) Three months later came Katrina. Then came Rita. And three years later, Hurricane Ike. Berger’s life could seem governed by storms; even his first meeting with Amanda, whom he married in 2002, came only a few weeks after Allison’s transformative rains. He convinced the newspaper to put him through a distance learning program at Mississippi State to earn his certification as a professional meteorologist. Modern technology and information dissemination have led to a democratization of weather forecasting, and that could mean compounding disaster in the wrong hands. Berger wanted to make sure his hands were the right ones.
When he left the Chronicle to join Ars Technica in October of 2015, he started Space City Weather. The day after he opened up shop, the remnants of Hurricane Patricia began clouding the skies of Houston. He was supposed to go out for dinner with Amanda. He worried his readers would feel he’d abandoned them in a time of need, and he couldn’t help writing a post. His first forecast on Space City Weather was for a flood.
Now in August 2017, the rains on Harvey’s opening night shocked even him. They were biblical. Rain falling at a rate of 2 inches an hour would force most drivers to pull over. Harvey would sometimes drop 5. It didn’t look like water; it looked like milk. Worse, Berger studied the models and the satellite imagery, and if he knew anything in that moment, listening to the rain against his window, he knew that there was so much more to come.
On Saturday, August 26, an hour after sunset, the evening’s first band of precipitation, which on radar resembled the longest tentacles of an angry squid, opened up over Houston, slowly crossing the city from west to east. As predicted by the European model, it stalled. Additional bands trailing behind it intensified and merged with the first. This created what meteorologists properly call a seething nexus of hate, Berger later wrote. The now-combined band extended more than 400 miles over Galveston and deep into the too-warm waters of the Gulf, creating a superhighway for rain to be delivered directly to Houston. By very early Sunday morning, Harvey’s enormous size began to tell, and another band prepared to make its assault on the already flooded southern suburbs. The Houston branch of the NWS had issued its special emergency bulletin, and in the adjacent Office of Emergency Management, the walls were being papered with calls for water rescues. People were drowning in the rain.
A sleepless Berger sat down at his desk and began writing a new post. Amanda and their daughters had been at her sister’s house for several hours, and she texted him to ask if he thought the latest band would be the end of it. He inserted the scene into his piece, which went up at 2:10 am on Sunday morning.
I wanted nothing more than to fall in her arms and tell her yes, this was it. By God, yes. Let’s go to bed and forget this ever happened. It had to be it, surely.
It would not be it. Harvey would make true Berger’s most pessimistic projections and refuse to leave. He would tell his readers that the rain would continue, especially at night. He would later hear that administrators at the Houston Methodist Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine were among those looking to him for guidance. He would harbor a guilt for delivering bad news for so many.
At 12:03 pm on Sunday, Berger finished writing a post that he titled: “Houston, We Will Get Through This.”
With the prospect of more rain, you may feel hopeless or helpless, or both. From a mental health standpoint, the uncertainty this brings adds a considerable amount of stress to an already stressful situation. I wish we could tell you when the rains will end, but we can’t. Here’s one thing we are sure of, however. The rains will end. After that the sun will come out.
More than a million people would visit Space City Weather on Sunday alone. Hurricane Harvey already had a name. Now it had its face.
On Tuesday evening, more than four days after the rain first started to fall, Berger would finally write: It’s over.
He had been nearly perfect in his forecast. It hadn’t been all that windy, so there weren’t many roofs blown off or trees toppled, except in those few cursed places that were also visited by tornadoes. And there wasn’t much local storm surge. The water didn’t come rushing through Houston. It didn’t arrive in walls the way it did in New Orleans with Katrina, one of the reasons Harvey directly killed 68 people, many in their cars, instead of an estimated 1,833 people, many in their beds. Harvey was a cataclysmic rain event, just as Berger had feared. He could have been wrong and his readers would have moved their furniture back downstairs and grumbled about the wasted effort. But he had been right, and thousands of his readers didn’t have a downstairs anymore.
A month after the storm, Berger dropped into his Hyundai hybrid and went for a drive. He wanted to see the terrible reality that had accompanied his forecasts, as though he could use the reminder that Harvey really did do what it did, to Houston and to him. By then the last part of weather analysis, the accounting of the aftermath, was nearly complete. It had rained so hard for so long that Houston’s swamps and reservoirs and drainage canals filled up, which meant that the city’s kitchens and living rooms and dens filled up next. Then the water drained away. In the time in between it made an estimated $75 billion in property irreparably wet.
He headed south toward Dickinson, one of the worst-hit areas. On some streets, every house had an enormous pile of debris out front—everything that had been inside the house was now outside of it, rotting in the sun. Other streets had been picked clean, and they looked almost normal, except that through their windows, Berger could see that the otherwise pristine-seeming houses had been stripped down to the studs.
There was a photograph that had made the rounds during the storm. It was of the flood-soaked residents of a nursing home, sitting on their loungers and walkers, water up to their chests. It seemed like a macabre piece of surrealist art. On his tour, Berger decided to visit that nursing home, La Vita Bella. Nearly everything that wasn’t human in that photograph was now sitting out in the yard. The lamps, the chairs, and the popcorn machine from that haunting image melted in the piles of sodden sheetrock and carpet, relics of a viral infamy. They were joined by smaller but perhaps more significant losses: a stuffed animal, a deck of playing cards, a broken mirror, a lipstick and a rouge, a large-print copy of Marley & Me.
Berger had also lost a book in the flood. Before dawn on Sunday, lightning had lit up the sky, and he could see that water had reached his garages. He had mostly emptied one but not the other—not the one that contained his old things, his diplomas and his Appetite for Destruction poster and his boxes of books. He raced down and lifted up a box from the floor and its bottom fell out. A book titled From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun dropped into the water and disappeared. Berger had treasured that book, a massive 500-year history of Western civilization. Its French-born author had died in Texas in 2012. Barzun was 104 years old, and the book had been his life’s work. Something about losing that particular book hit Berger harder than it might have. It was a metaphor for how easily even our monuments can be erased.
He had written about the loss of that book and other things in a post that went up on Ars Technica early in the morning on August 30, the Wednesday after the storm. The post was titled “This Is Probably the Worst US Flood Storm Ever, and I’ll Never Be the Same.” The cardboard box had failed, he wrote, and the book had dropped into the murk. Almost immediately, a current from the rushing water beyond the garage door pulled the tome away, forever. Damn, I loved that book. An indescribably bad night had just gotten that little bit worse.
Berger started receiving emails and notes from his grateful readers. They had saved some of their own treasures because of his warnings, and they felt they had a debt to settle. A copy of From Dawn to Decadence was eventually put into his hands by a stranger, a woman who had attended a talk he had overcome his nerves to give after the storm. That book now sits high and dry on a shelf in his office, a tiny reminder of the things that Harvey had taken, but also a reminder of the things it had delivered.
The National Weather Service is part of a necessary and effective meteorological bureaucracy. It is staffed by thousands of people—by good and competent forecasters who care deeply about the weather and its effects on their communities. The NWS can offer its best daily guess, informed by their forecasters’ computer models and professional experiences. It can give warnings and sound alarms.
But the NWS can’t talk about the weather the way human beings talk about the weather. It can’t explore each of its uncertainties, almost reveling in the sweeping possibilities of hurricanes and their animal behaviors. It can’t riff.
More important, when the weather is at its worst: The National Weather Service can’t comfort. Even though Dan Reilly and his colleagues live and work in greater Houston, even though they were plenty concerned during Harvey for their own families and homes, they can’t issue a bulletin that says, We’re sick and tired of the rain, just like everyone else. They can’t write: The rains will end. After that the sun will come out.
Only someone like Eric Berger can do that, providing a weather forecast that includes words like hope or sorry or maybe. Only someone like Eric Berger can employ our best technology in a way that still feels intimate and human-scale, applying the wisdom of satellites to Deb Walters and her doomed party. Only someone like Eric Berger, looking out his window at the rain and willing for it to stop even though he knows that it won’t be stopping anytime soon, can speak to a family watching the water on its torturous rise to their door, the winds threatening the entirety of their lives, and make them feel a little less alone in the storm.
Update: After this article went to press, we heard from Deb Walters, one of the many people who sought Berger’s advice just before Hurricane Harvey. Thanks to Berger’s forecasts, Walters decided to cancel a house party she hosts every year for some members of Alcoholics Anonymous and ex-cons. It turned out to be a good call. Although Walters’ house was spared, the surrounding streets flooded, which would have stranded the guests there for three days. “These folks are hysterical,” she said (as in funny and lovable), “but the type of people you invite to a party aren’t necessarily the type of people you want to spend three days with.” She finally hosted the shindig three weeks later, for a smaller crowd. —The Editors
112:30PM EST, December 20, 2017 This article has been updated to correct Ars Technica’s ownership structure.
Chris Jones is a longtime magazine writer. He also wrote about the International Space Station.
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