Issue: March 2007
OFF THE CHARTS: All Hazards Mommy Weather Radio

by WendyMitman Clarke

For as long as I can remember (which, ironically, seems shorter all the time), the voices of weather radio have played on my life's soundtrack. It started when I was a kid on my parents' first sailboat. Always at some point in the day Dad would say, "Let's seewhat Noah has to say." And that made sense to me; after all, the guy with the ark had valuable first-hand experience with what nowadays would be called a "significant weather event."

Only later did I figure out that Dad meant the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--NOAA, not Noah. But that realization never dimmed my appreciation for the voices who would tell me what I could expect that day on the Bay: thunderstorms, cold fronts, small-craft advisories, and "lovely spring weathuh," as an especially memorable voice said one morning. It is true we occasionally might take NOAA's name in vain, particularly when he would predict 10- to 20-knot winds and they were more like 20 to 30. (The invectives hurled in his direction would be, of course, proportional to the wind angle we were sailing; the higher the angle, the stronger the language.) Nevertheless, I always tuned in, every day. I'm a weather junkie, for one thing. And NOAA was still Noah, really. The voices were comforting in the simple fact that they were always there.

It was quite a shock in the 1990s when the weather service abandoned the human voices I'd grown up with, in favor of computer voices. Weather radio was growing like a thunderhead on a hot summer day (400 transmitters in 1990, nearly 1,000 today), and to increase efficiency and speed they enlisted "Paul"--the mouthpiece, so to speak, for a text-to-speech system called DECTalk. Paul sounded like something straight out of Plan Nine From Outer Space. Okay, maybe that's a little harsh, maybe he was just more like the late Hunter S. Thompson coming off one of his famous ether binges. But even the weather service eventually acknowledged "there was some dissatisfaction with Paul's voice." Enter Donna and Craig, and later Tom (who kicked Craig off the island) and Javier (on the Spanish-speaking stations).

I can't say I've grown to like the new voices, although it can be fairly amusing to hear Tom, for instance, say "Havre del Grace," because to him "de" can only mean Delaware. The fact is you can learn to live with almost anything.

Lately, though, I've detected another alarming trend on my weather radio. It's becoming my mother. Last summer during a particularly Amazonian hot spell, Tom advised me to drink plenty of water, lay off the booze, limit my outdoor activities to the early morning or evening and by all means stay in an air-conditioned space (such as a shopping mall, he helpfully suggested). On a recent foggy morning, he told me to take my time getting to work, to use my low-beam headlights and for God's sake to keep sufficient distance between my vehicle and the one in front of me.

And then there was this morning. After warning me that tides would be abnormally low in the wake of a strong cold front, Tom went straight to uber-mommy in a special weather statement: "It is downright cold," he said (I imagined little gray curls bobbing reprovingly). "Dress accordingly. Those days of going outside without a winter jacket are over." He went on to wag his auditory finger about wind chills putting temperatures in the single digits. "Yes," he said emphatically (in case I wasn't paying attention, which of course we kids never do), "the single digits." He noted I should let my car warm up before going anywhere, admonished me to wear a hat, gloves and a coat, and, last but not least, "Don't forget about your pets during the cold weather!"

I don't doubt that the weather service is just trying to be helpful. Tom is a product, after all, of a federal government that seems to function on the premise that we're all children who don't know any better than to come in from the rain. The thing is, some of us like the rain. And, for that matter, the sound of "lovely spring weathuh."