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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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As it does every few minutes, the phone rings, a continual punctuation to activity in the office. "Every day the Sun-Sentinel calls, wanting to know the records, or the St. Pete Times," says Risnychok. "Every day at around the same time, they'll say their machine went down and they need to know something." He says he's got nothing against TV weathercasters, and he realizes that the Weather Service has access to a great deal more resources than would otherwise be available. "The ones we like are the ones who only come to us when they need us," he says, "not the ones who call us every day because they don't know what they're talking about."
The telephone number, 665-0429, is listed in Southern Bell's white pages, under "U.S. Government, Commerce, Department of, Travelers and Other Weather Information 24 Hours." Anyone with access to a phone can call anytime from anyplace and talk about the weather with a real live human being.
Not every city's National Weather Service is within such easy reach. "I've got a guy calling from Louisiana, wanting to know the water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico," says Risnychok. "It's easier to just give him the info he wants, if I have the time and can find it, rather than try to hunt down a number and a person he can call there - wherever he is. I think one of the reasons we get some strange calls is that we're one of the few places with a public-service staff." Half of the NWS's 72 staff members are forecasters who spend their time pondering data and fashioning climatological models, but this office is unique; because it doubles as the National Hurricane Center and attracts inquiries from across the U.S., the Coral Gables branch employs a corps of specialists to deal with the public.
"One of our biggest drags is when we get a call from the Herald - we know exactly what to expect. Some editor's said, `Gimme three inches on the weather.' I know, I talked to an editor over there once and he told me that when they get a rookie they put him on the obits or the weather. And so they call us."
Most of the calls he handles, though, are from "people who're going to Tampa for the weekend and they want to know what it's going to be like. It's kind of strange that they bother to call at all, because even if you tell them the weather's going to be bad, it doesn't change their minds about going." Other callers, equally predictable, are a little less ordinary. "We had an old lady who used to call, back in the Seventies. In those days we'd turn on the phones every morning at 7:30. You'd switch on the phone, and it would ring, and it would be her. `Temperature and humidity in North Miami Beach,' she'd say. Every day. For years. `Temperature and humidity in North Miami Beach.' One time I gave her an adverse forecast, for storms or something, and she said, `That's not what the man at Northwest Airlines told me.' I hung up and we called Northwest, and the guy there said, `Oh, Lucy. We've got a memo up on the board here that says we always have to give her good weather.' The guy said her husband called them and threatened to sue if they gave her a heart attack or something by telling her the weather was going to be bad. Then one day we turned on the phone at 7:30 and it didn't ring. Lucy never called again. We knew she'd died."
From a file drawer, Risnychok pulls a T-bone-thick sheaf of papers, communiques he's accumulated in the past two decades. A man named Emil with a penchant for pornography who's running for president of the world. Simplistic diagrams of machines guaranteed to dissipate hurricanes and save the world. And a ten-year case history in letter form, sent to Risnychok and his colleagues by a man in Arizona who claims to have a magnet in his head that gives him the ability to track felons and virgins around the globe.
"Why do they pick us? I don't know," says Risnychok. "There's this guy who calls - a lawyer. If the temperature drops below 40 degrees, he'll fly south. He starts to cry if it gets too cold. I guess it's a legitimate phobia. I've had him call, heard him actually sobbing on the phone. He'll go, `Noel, I gotta get out of here,' and he'll be crying." Risnychok pauses. "I haven't heard from him in a while," he says, "but the weather's been pretty good lately.