How Space City Weather's Forecasts Became A Beacon In The Storm For Houston
On Sunday, as Hurricane Harvey touched down in Houston, millions of people in Texas and beyond jumped online to find out what was expected of the storm and how they could keep their families safe. Some clicked on the National Weather Service, or major commercial weather sites; but many others checked out Space City Weather, a Houston-area weather blog that received more than a million page views on Sunday alone.
The site, which is run by two local journalists — Eric Berger, a certified meteorologist, and his partner, Matt Lanza, a forecast meteorologist who used to work in broadcasting — posted round the clock during the storm, updating multiple times a day with flood projections and forecasts, as the situation in Southeast Texas grew ever more volatile. Links to these posts have been shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter as people looked for guidance on whether or not to leave their homes and neighborhoods.
"It's been insane this week," founder and meteorologist Eric Berger tells Bustle. "I'll be honest, it's been a little terrifying. It's a lot of pressure. We're just two guys writing about the weather."
Founded in 2015 by Berger, Space City Weather was created to fill a void. "The National Weather Service does a good job of forecasting," says Berger, “but the information is often less accessible to people not familiar with technical weather jargon.” The site promises "hype-free" forecasts for Houston and beyond, written in layman's terms. In non-hurricane weather, the site is updated daily, and sees roughly 5000 pageviews a day
According, to Berger, the NWS is also incapable of providing answers to the questions everyone asks themselves in these storms — When should I stock up on supplies? Will my street flood? Should I call into work? Should we evacuate? Berger, on the other hand, is confident answering all of that in information-packed blog posts.
"Our philosophy is to deliver information with as little hype as possible," Berger says, noting that a large demographic of Space City Weather's readership are young moms, "women in their 20s and 30s just trying to find valuable information about their families." "I've got a family," he adds, "I know how stressful it is to be making those decisions. We want to provide the best forecast we can and help people answer those questions for themselves."
As Harvey raged, Space City doubled down on that mission. Over the weekend, Berger, like thousands of Houstonians, experienced minor flooding in his own house; he took breaks in between writing weather updates to move items out of his garage. Lanza and meteorologist and geographer Braniff Davis stepped in to keep the site running.
Berger, who is affectionately known as "SciGuy" in Houston, had previously been writing a popular science blog for the Chronicle, covering the city's extensive space, medical and technology industries, as well as weather. The SciGuy blog was founded just before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, and pageviews on Berger's updates during that storm gave him a sense of the power social media could have during large-scale disasters. Many people who followed his coverage then continue to keep up with his weather writing 12 years later, creating a kind of tight-knit community complete with in-jokes.
"People are looking for news they can trust."
Space City Weather is unique among weather sites in that is funded by corporate sponsorships, like Reliant Energy, rather than advertising. This model allows Lanza and Berger to focus on what they think is the most important information in any weather situation, rather than trying to stoke hysteria or fear in order to drum up page views. "I didn't want to do advertising because of the pressure to draw clicks," Berger said. "What has been striking to me is that there seems to be a real value out there for this kind of news. People are looking for news they can trust." Last year, when Berger first opened up sponsorships at $1000 a month, all 12 months sold out pretty quickly. This year, he raised prices slightly — and also sold out.
Berger and Lanza also don't put money into advertising Space City to the public. The vast majority of their traffic, especially over the past week, has come from Facebook and Twitter shares. "We haven't gone out of our way to promote the site," Breger said. "It really illustrates the power of social sharing."
By Tuesday morning, as the rain subsided, Space City Weather was advising people on what steps to take if their house had flooded — a post that has already been shared on social media hundreds of times. Under each post, a deluge of comments thanked the team for their hard work. And the praise wasn't limited to locals — commenters in other states or even other continents applauded their coverage. "Still hanging on every word," read one comment, posted Monday night by a reader named Lynn. "Granted not all are good news but at least I know what, when and where the weather is going to be. Thanks for the Herculean effort. It’s been appreciated."
Underneath it, Berger posted a reply. "As long as it’s needed with this storm, we’ll be here."