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Deluged

Local meteorologists know that a bad call will likely result in a storm of protest from viewers

''The Weather Man" may be a film about the relationships a weather forecaster has with his wife (whom he's divorcing), his father (who's ill), and his two kids (who are experiencing assorted problems). But anyone who's caught the trailer for the movie, which opens tomorrow, will be struck by the vitriolic relationship between the lead character, played by Nicolas Cage, and his viewers. During the time it takes for the trailer to unspool, Cage's meteorologist gets pelted by a chocolate shake, a box of chicken nuggets, and an array of candy-colored drinks tossed by frustrated viewers who recognize him.

Of course, ''The Weather Man" is a movie. In the real world, none of Boston's local weather forecasters cop to ever being beaned by flying objects.

''I think the public would probably like to throw some things at us once in a while," says Mish Michaels, a meteorologist at CBS4 who's worked in the business for 14 years, ''but thus far I have been fortunate enough that they have maintained composure and have maintained a restraint."

Local meteorologists acknowledge that viewers can sometimes be cantankerous. Technical advances in weather forecasting have raised expectations about accuracy. Unfortunately, meteorologists don't always get it right, leading to passionate responses ranging from death threats to demands for the weather forecaster's dismissal to doubts about the meteorologist's intelligence. It doesn't help that the popularity of e-mail has increased the amount of interaction between forecasters and the people who watch them.

Why the heated responses?

''There's a lot of things that are riding on the weather," Michaels says. ''People have big investments, whether it's money or time or personal, special occasions. And when somebody's telling you what [the weather] might be like, you want to bank on that. When that doesn't come to fruition, you want to take your frustrations out on someone, and Mother Nature doesn't have an e-mail address or phone number."

Michaels has been on the receiving end of some nasty e-mails due to perceived wrong calls. ''The gist of the e-mail," she says, ''is just that 'You're stupid,' that 'You're a moron,' and that 'I can't believe you get paid to do your job. Who do you think you are? You ruined this for me or that for me.' But basically the tenor is, 'You're just as stupid as dirt.' "

And pity poor Pete Bouchard, who says he's gotten two death threats in the 3 1/2 years he's worked at WHDH-TV (Channel 7) because of faulty forecasts. One was the result of Bouchard's getting the timing of some spring showers wrong. The winter had been brutal, Bouchard recalls, ''and everyone was looking for a ray of sun or some warmth." Bouchard told his viewers that the approaching showers would arrive in the afternoon. Instead they came at 10 a.m.

The e-mail he received as a result was brutal, says Bouchard, a meteorologist for 13 years: ''I'm going to beat you until you don't walk, and then I'm going to beat you some more."

What caused the sender's intense anger? ''The showers came in early," explains Bouchard, ''and ruined his day; he had plans and he based it on my forecast."

Kevin Lemanowicz, chief meteorologist at WFXT-TV (Channel 25), hasn't received any threats of violence, but last year he was sent a few e-mails from people calling for his resignation because of botched forecasts.

''You'd be surprised what people say," says Lemanowicz, 35. ''I've never had anything thrown at me yet, but certainly strong comments."

Local meteorologists all point to the advent of e-mail to explain why their interaction with the public has gotten not only more frequent but also more intimate in tone in the last few years.

''Before if people were very angry," says Barry Burbank, a meteorologist at CBS4 with almost 30 years of experience in the business, ''they would tend to send some snail mail. Now it's too easy with the e-mail. Many times we're absolutely overwhelmed by the e-mails we get, particularly during the winter, particularly when it's been a very hard winter. People sometimes are not kind, but they're also forgiving too."

Michaels estimates she gets 50 or 60 e-mails a week from viewers; Bouchard says he receives around 10 to 15 a day. The content ranges from requests for personalized forecasts to help with homework. But the e-mail can sometimes veer toward the personal. Lemanowicz receives suggestions about what tie he should wear on air. People ask J.C. Monahan, a 33-year-old meteorologist at WCVB-TV (Channel 5), what her initials stand for. (It's Jennifer Catherine.)

''Over the years," says Lemanowicz, ''people come to know and trust one particular person and go back to that person for the forecast when they need it, when it really counts. And if you blow it, they feel really betrayed, I think. You let them down. That's a big responsibility, one we don't take lightly."

The precision of forecasts as technology advances causes viewers to have a stronger faith in meteorologists. Remember in the past, when a forecaster would commit to saying only there's a slight chance of rain sometime during the day? These days a meteorologist will specifically say, ''Rain in the morning, becoming sunny in the afternoon."

''Now people are buying into it," says Bouchard. ''They believe you're selling the product of sunny skies, and they're going to buy into it and make plans."

Once these strong relationships form, misunderstandings can occur.

Harvey Leonard, co-chief meteorologist at WCVB-TV, remembers a snowstorm in the 1990s that hit two days before Christmas; it put a crimp in the plans of people who hadn't done their holiday shopping early. Leonard wound up getting three ''pretty vicious e-mails," he says, complaining that his forecast failed to indicate the severity of the storm.

''Here's the problem with that," says Leonard, 56, who has 31 years of experience. ''While this whole situation was developing and occurring, I wasn't even in the country. That's really tough."

Talk to local weather forecasters long enough and they all mention that their viewers treat them like they're Mother or Father Natures, capable of controlling the weather.

''I think the number one quote," says Monahan, ''that [we meteorologists get from viewers that] we'd probably all agree on is, 'Why can't you do anything about this?' or 'Can't you do anything about this?' "

Burbank gets pummeled by such questions as ''Why did you do this?" or ''How come [this is] happening?," followed by ''It's all your fault."

''What [viewers] fail to realize," says Michaels, ''is that meteorology is a scientific process. We really are on the front lines of science in that people are exposed to the scientific process every day, dealing with the risk, the probability, the uncertainty. You really don't come across that in your daily life until, perhaps, say you go to the doctor, and the doctor says, 'Well here's the probability it's this [illness],' or 'Here's the risk that it's that.' There's uncertainties involved -- that's really what the scientific process is about."

Over the years, Bouchard has learned it's best to be firm in his forecasts. No wavering allowed.

''If you commit," he says, ''and say 'This is what I think is going to happen,' then walk away from it, people will forgive you a little bit more."

But when a mistake happens, local meteorologists swear they feel terrible about their weather misjudgments.

''We don't like to be wrong," says Michaels. ''It's not fun. You keep your head down, you close the blinds, you get a sick feeling in your stomach."

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