By Weezie Mackey
An Interview With Eric Berger, Houston-Based Meteorologist And Local Hero
Rice University sent its first email about Tropical Storm Harvey midday on Thursday, August 24. By 6:25 that night, the storm upgraded to a hurricane, and Rice announced early closing for the following day. With safety as the highest priority, the business school cancelled Friday afternoon and evening classes and all Saturday events and classes. No one expected the weather to unfurl as it did over the next few days.
No one, except Eric Berger.
"I’d love nothing more than to write a post expressing some optimism about the rainfall forecast ahead, but as of now it looks really quite grim."
"Now is the time to get off the roads, get to your residence, and wait out a potentially long night of flooding."
9:14 pm Saturday, 8/26/17
"Houston is on the cusp of a major, widespread flood event that could affect thousands of homes."
10:53 pm Saturday, 8/26/17
"A bad situation has turned worse."
12:40 am Sunday, 8/27/17
You may have heard of Eric Berger if you live in Houston or you read Wired or you caught his interview with Elon Musk just before the Falcon Heavy rocket launch. He’s a certified meteorologist and senior space editor at Ars Technica, a website covering news and opinions in technology, science, politics and society. Before that, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist at the Houston Chronicle for his coverage of Hurricane Ike, and before that he was the SciGuy blogger writing about nanometers and parsecs (a unit of distance in astronomy, by the way). Berger covers everything “from astronomy to private space to wonky NASA policy” to the Tesla CEO and his designer jeans. Mostly, he untangles the language of science and medicine for the general public. And the general public is loving it.
In October 2015 Berger founded the website Space City Weather to “cover Houston weather news and forecasting with accuracy and without hype.” Since Hurricane Harvey, Berger and the site’s managing editor Matt Lanza have become household names and unexpected heroes in Houston. Before, during and after the storm their clear, calm updates were posted several times a day.
Most comforting was the sense that they were in the eye of the storm with you.
"For the first time ever, the National Weather Service just issued what it is calling a “Flash Flood Emergency for Catastrophic Life Threatening Flooding.” And not to sound too flippant, but that sounds really bad. You should probably heed their advice — WHICH IS SIMPLY DO NOT TRAVEL. DO NOT IMPEDE WATER RESCUES IN PROGRESS.
Is that clear enough?
My wife, bless her, just asked me if Band 3 was it for the night. I wanted nothing more than to fall in her arms and tell her yes, this was it. By God, yes. Let’s go to bed and forget this ever happened. It had to be it, surely."
2 am Sunday, 8/27/17
One week he’s covering the eclipse for Ars Technica, the next he’s got the biggest storm to ever hit Houston. Daily website traffic tripled along with speaking engagements since then. When asked why people are obsessed with weather, Berger’s quick to answer, “They’re not obsessed with weather until it makes a difference in their lives.”
During Hurricane Harvey, it’s safe to say, weather made a difference in a lot of lives. Berger and Lanza’s voices became a safe harbor during the storm. People who had never heard of Berger or Space City Weather before were impatiently awaiting the next post, more than 60 in all, some only a few hours apart at the height of the storm. On Sunday, August 27, they posted nine times, twice in the middle of the night.
Below is an edited interview with Eric Berger.
RBW: Why is “no hype” a tagline of Space City Weather? Why is that important?
EB: It was something I started doing. Writing weather reports without any nonsense. There’s an audience for the other stuff too. I’ve been doing this since Katrina and Rita, it’s evolved from recognizing that need and style that fits with my personality. In Houston, it’s boring most of the year, until there’s a storm. People are obsessed during extreme weather. TV people have known this for a long time. And the internet has allowed people to get even more obsessed. Our coverage is the alternative to the craziness.
RBW: How much has Space City Weather grown since Harvey?
EB: Daily traffic has about tripled. Maybe 12,000 page views on a slow day. Originally, it was a struggle to figure out how to build it, monetize it at all, create an LLC, taxes. But the growth is all word of mouth. Honest to god, people sharing the site, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit. On Facebook there are 20,000 to 100,000 followers by just organic sharing.
RBW: What is it like to be a celebrity?
EB: My kids are 10 and 14. They give me a hard time. It’s nice to have people thank me. They appreciate the site. It happened after Ike. My picture was on the front page of the paper — sciguy hurricane coverage. Blog. Livechats. The intense hunger for information was eye opening. It wasn’t celebrity; it was recognition.
RBW: Would you say you have a personal brand?
EB: No-hype guy. I’d been pushing the Chronicle to create a weather site. There’s an opening in Houston. TV was covered. Internet was a revelation to weather communication. I built it around this idea of no hype. That was really rewarding. I met Matt in 2014 and brought him in to help out. We share a similar philosophy, and he picked up on the vibe immediately. When I left the paper, I turned to him and asked, “Do you want to be a part of this?”
RBW: Tell us about your fundrasing campaign?
EB: We have two ways to build up support to pay for server expenses. One is an annual fundraiser where we sell a t-shirt. There was a tremendous response this year. And then we stopped doing ads on the site in May 2016, so we tried to find a monthly sponsor. Reliant came on board for the second half of this year. I like that because I don’t have to deal with the hassle. When there’s weather, you’ve got to be there. A lot of people gave me advice after Harvey. But as long as I’m getting a decent amount of compensation for the time, I'm fine with that.
RBW: Are there words responsible weather casters avoid?
EB: Until Friday [August 25, 2017], I would avoid comparing any storm as the next Tropical Storm Allison. Because Allison was extreme flooding. I would consciously not use it. The word now is Harvey.
Since Eric Berger visited Rice Business, his star continues to rise. Read more about him in in Wired's article “Meet the Unlikely Hero Who Predicted Hurricane Harvey’s Floods"
Eric Berger has an astronomy degree from the University of Texas and a master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri. He previously worked at the Houston Chronicle for 17 years, where the paper was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2009 for his coverage of Hurricane Ike.
Weezie Mackey is the Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.