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Weather forecasters’ storm prediction much more accurate than Cuomo’s comments

There were obvious heroes of the storm: firefighters who rescued the sick, pharmacists who kept on filling orders, snowmobilers and guardsmen who shuttled supplies.

Then there were the champions whose thank-you was to get pelted with an ice-cold snowball of blame.

That’s what forecasters at the National Weather Service got after dispatching warnings of a historic storm. You had to be in sunny Florida not to hear that major snow was on the way. Or, apparently, Albany.

“No one had an idea that it was going to be that much snow that fast. Snow coming down at the rate of about 5 inches per hour. No one had an idea,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters in one post-storm news conference. “The weather service was off.”

Only, they weren’t. It didn’t take long for meteorologists to point out that their colleagues at the National Weather Service had, in fact, predicted a historic storm. WIVB’s Don Paul called Cuomo’s “attempt to scapegoat” the federal weather service “completely in error.” Al Roker jumped in with a tweet that questioned whether Cuomo’s folks read the forecasts.

Obviously, state and county officials were closely tracking the warnings. But Cuomo made it seem as though the weather service was way off, when in fact its meteorologists noted before the storm that it had the “makings of a historic or at least well remembered lake-effect event” with localized 3- to 5-inch-per-hour snowfall possible.

And as for location? The National Weather Service predicted “areas east of Buffalo ... the main interchanges of the Thruway to the south... and the Southtowns should take a hard hit.”

To be sure, the weather service didn’t pinpoint the enormous 65 inches that fell in south Cheektowaga the first day. No one was talking about as much as 7 feet in a week. But the agency did note the possibility of more than 3 feet.

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service had pretty close to 20-20 vision this time around.

“It was an amazing forecast,” said Dan Satterfield, a Maryland meteorologist and an Earth Science blogger for the American Geophysical Union. “It will go down as a legendary forecast.”

Satterfield praised the federal agency’s work in tracking the notoriously difficult-to-predict lake-effect snow. Like other meteorologists, he did not mince words when it came to Cuomo’s forecast comments.

“We should expect more from our political leaders,” Satterfield said. “There’s a lot of science illiteracy out there these days. The average person, I can see him saying that. I get that all the time, but a governor should really think a little.”

It’s not an easy job calling the weather. Forecast it right, and it’s simply doing your job. Call it wrong, and the consequences can be dire. Satterfield knows this. But he also noted that criticism often comes from those who don’t look closely at forecasts.

It didn’t take long for Cuomo to soften his remarks on the National Weather Service, which he later said perform “the best they can with the information they have.”

Cuomo’s comments were an attempt to plug his plan for a state weather detection system. The blame game aside, everyone could benefit from more real-time information about weather conditions. But it turns out, it’s not so easy to blame the weatherman.