Embarrassing snow-forecast busts are occupational hazards for meteorologists. Usually, however, they don’t come with death threats.
“That storm will always haunt me,” says John Bolaris, easily the most flamboyant — and controversial — weathercaster in the history of local television. Bolaris would become the lightning rod for the storms of outrage over the infamous busted snow forecast of March 2001.
For all the well-publicized adventures and misadventures in the years since — high-profile romances and breakups, job changes, costly encounters with the Eastern European scam artists who drugged him in Miami Beach — that blown forecast is what people remember about a meteorologist who spent more than two decades on camera.
“Twenty years, and I still have to put up with this [unappealing expletive],” he said. He now is in the business of selling high-end real estate in the Philly region, and to this day, prospective clients are apt to say, “Aren’t you the guy...”
» READ MORE: Drugged & duped: Bolaris' perfect storm
He was the guy the Daily News crowned the “Hype King” after a post-storm poll that he won in a landslide. Why John Bolaris, when even the usually staid National Weather Service had warned of the potential of a storm of “historic proportions,” and the local office had called for up to 28 inches of snow for Philadelphia? But it was Bolaris who received the death threats.
This much is known: At 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2001, during a Law & Order episode, Channel 10 ran a teaser, or “crawl,” alerting viewers to a potential mega-snowstorm.
”I was watching Law & Order, so I saw the crawl live, and screamed at the TV,” recalled Bolaris’ colleague, meteorologist Glenn Schwartz.
By the time the snow stopped on Tuesday, March 6, Philadelphia measured an entire inch, and about 35 million people in the Washington-New York corridor were left to wonder, Is that all there is?
“That was the worst feeling of my life, professionally,” Bolaris said this week. But what really stung were the allegations that he hyped the storm. “I can take the heat for a blown forecast,” he has said, “but I can’t take people saying I hyped something for the sake of ratings.”
It did so happen that Feb. 28 was the last night of the quarterly “sweeps” period and that very night NBC10 ended 6ABC’s 30-year reign at the top of the local news ratings. The next day, naturally, the storm threat backed off.
Did the crawl move the needle?
NBC10′s triumph in the 30 Years’ War was a seismic local TV event. So this was all-is-fair territory.
But the battle had ended before the crawl: As The Inquirer reported, NBC10 already had clinched the crown and the champagne was on ice.
Steve Schwaid, the station’s news director at the time, said that when Bolaris told him about the storm threat, he responded, “Do we need a crawl?” Bolaris said yes, and looked over his shoulder as he typed it. Not so, said Bolaris: It was Schwaid’s idea all the way.
The crawl touting “the possibility of one of the biggest East Coast storms in the past decade” evoked avalanche potential, given that the region had experienced a “Storm of the Century,” in March 1993, and the biggest snow on record, 30.7 inches in Philadelphia, in January 1996.
Viewers learned during the weather segment that any storm would be four days away. Computer models were showing it had prodigious potential, but as so often happens, the models cooled on the idea on Thursday.
The storm threat was back with renewed virtual ferocity Friday, and Bolaris told viewers it could mimic the famous Blizzard of 1888, known as “The White Hurricane.”
On Saturday afternoon, the National Weather Service in Mount Holly posted a forecast calling for 14 to 28 inches of snow in Philadelphia.
Then the computers started suggesting it was all just a bad dream.
Bolaris recalled that when he went on the air Sunday night, “I said, ‘Basically, it’s not happening,’” and viewers could expect maybe two to four inches.
But when he was done, the anchorwoman said, “’There you have it. Get ready for the big blizzard.’”
The imperfect storm
It was a long-duration storm, with mixed precipitation falling from Sunday morning to Tuesday afternoon, but instead of fits and starts, it fell in spits and stops, all accumulating at the rate of an inch every 61 hours.
That same week, Louis W. Uccellini, now the head of the National Weather Service, happened to be in West Chester for a scheduled talk. He said he had expected to be hailed as “the conquering hero” for a forecast triumph.
Instead, he said, the Philadelphia snow was sabotaged by a later-than-expected arrival of the original storm feature on the West Coast. Computer models had trouble with it because data were wanting over the Pacific Ocean. Ultimately, the timetable got pushed back and the storm matured farther north than expected.
Up to two feet fell in Upstate New York, reminiscent of the Blizzard of 1888 that Bolaris had referenced, but it was a nuisance event along the 95 corridor from Washington to New York.
Bust watch in effect?
It wouldn’t be the last time that a snow forecast would bust, but the whiffs never quite matched the magnitude of 2001′s.
That said, snowfall forecasts have improved overall in the last 20 years, said Gary Szatkowski, who was the chief of the local weather service office in 2001 and who famously apologized publicly for a forecast bust in January 2015.
“Computer modeling is much better than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “The important complement to the better computer modeling is the better science that has come along as well.”
Schwartz added a cautionary note. “Although computer models have gotten much better overall,” he said, “I’m not sure that a similar thing couldn’t happen today. Forecast-wise, that is.”
Staff writer Mike Klein contributed to this article.