National Weather Service Receives Bogus Storm Reports in Midwest

June 12, 2007

Someone has been submitting fictional reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service, causing unnecessary alerts and frightening people.

The areas affected have included Milwaukee, La Crosse, Chicago, and Lincoln, Ill., said Tom Schwein, chief of the National Weather Service’s systems and facilities division for the central region in Kansas City, Mo.

The person started sending reports in mid-April through an online form on the service’s Web site.

“We’ve been detecting a regular pattern of a person who has been submitting false severe weather reports that are constructed in a way that seem very realistic,” Schwein said. “Whoever this person is seems to have knowledge of severe weather reports.”

Schwein said reporting severe weather is like calling in a bogus bomb threat or unnecessarily pulling a fire alarm.

“People had to take cover, media interrupted their broadcasting for hours, we’ve alerted people unnecessarily and frightened them. This person has really misled us,” Schwein said.

More than 25 pretend reports were submitted from the same computer over one weekend this month, and the service typically gets 40 to 50 a month from that source, Schwein said. It does not appear that any phony reports were sent during Thursday’s severe weather, according to Pat Slattery of the Weather Service.

The public can use a form on weather service local Web sites to anonymously report weather. The agency recently added a notice at the top of the form that submitting false statements is a federal crime, with a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Schwein said investigators have traced the Internet protocol address of the faker’s computer. The FBI is helping subpoena records to figure out who is registered for the computer IP address, he said.

On April 25, a report came in stating that a tornado causing damage and injuries had hit Blue Mound, Ill. Local NBC affiliate WAND-TV in Decatur, Ill., interrupted normal broadcasting for approximately three hours, said Lee Davis, chief meteorologist with WAND-TV.

“We were getting warnings from the National Weather Service which seemed inconsistent with the data I was showing on my radar,” Davis said.

Severe weather was already present in that county. The county’s Emergency Management Agency issued a tornado warning based on spotter reports, said Phil Anello, the emergency agency’s coordinator for the county. Nevertheless, the reports of damage and injuries were false.

The person usually submits the false reports when severe weather is already present, Schwein said.

“The time and location of the report will line up very well with our satellite and radar data,” Schwein said. “They’ll report damage that fits the structure of the storm.”

Forecasters consider radar, environment and spotter reports before alerting the public of severe weather, said Rusty Kapela, warning coordination meteorologist with the weather service’s Sullivan office.

“We need two out of three in most cases to push the meteorologist past the point where they’ll issue a warning,” Kapela said.

The false reports coming through the public Web site differ from reports from trained spotters who register with the weather service and must log in to sites with a password.

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