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Stormy weather: Forecaster favors his own predictions

October 7, 1997

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) _ Dan Satterfield once issued a tornado watch that sent alarmed residents running to a storm center that wasn’t open. Another time, the WHNT-TV meteorologist told them to ignore wailing tornado sirens.

His work has made for stormy relations with officials around Huntsville, where memories of a 1989 tornado that killed 22 are still fresh and the next tornado season is on the horizon.

The National Weather Service and emergency management officials accuse Satterfield of threatening public safety by issuing his own weather alerts and pooh-poohing some of theirs.

``To me it’s the same thing as walking into a crowded movie theater and yelling `Fire!‴ said Jim McCamy, Jackson County’s emergency management director.

While the TV station contends Satterfield has the equipment and the know-how to do what he does, critics aren’t so sure. Some accuse him of trying to boost the station’s ratings.

``The National Weather Service has resources that are better than any local person, and it’s incumbent that the public is warned in a very systematic way,″ said Professor James Elsner at Florida State University, which has one of the nation’s leading meteorology schools.

Tornado season brings an average of 22 twisters to Alabama each year.

It was within the last year that Satterfield issued the tornado watch for an approaching system well ahead of the government, leading to the storm-shelter confusion.

``The next morning I started getting phone calls about `Why weren’t you open?′ There wasn’t a watch by the National Weather Service,″ said Richard Adams, emergency management director in Lauderdale County.

Even one of Satterfield’s WHNT colleagues stammered and looked puzzled on the air in February when Satterfield told viewers to disregard tornado sirens in Limestone County.

``Let’s not confuse people right now,″ Satterfield said excitedly, explaining there was no real danger. No tornado hit the area.

Some contend advanced forecasting equipment at television stations can sometimes give broadcast meteorologists information the government misses.

``Should they wait on the weather service or go ahead and broadcast a warning?″ said Kevin Knupp, atmospheric science professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and a member of the American Meteorological Society severe weather committee.

Emergency management officials in 13 counties have signed a statement opposing Satterfield’s practices, and a local leader of the meteorological society said he is violating group policy that the government be the official voice for weather alerts.

The weather service has exchanged letters with attorneys for the station’s owners, The New York Times Co., but there is little else it can do.

Issuing false warnings in the name of the weather service is a criminal offense punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. But Satterfield has not done that, said Glenn Tallia, the agency’s chief counsel.

``What he is doing is creating confusion by issuing his own watches and warnings and canceling ours,″ Tallia said.

Satterfield declined to comment, referring questions to his boss.

``We stand behind Dan 100 percent,″ said Linda Spalla, the station’s president and general manager. ``We’re going to continue to do what we think is best to serve our viewers.″

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