Last year, as Florence approached the United States, Mike Boylan went live from his home office in Oldsmar, about a half-hour north of Tampa.
The storm for days had waffled between a Category 4 hurricane and a tropical storm, either of which could become a pain in the ass for parts of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. So Boylan shared the controversial ECMWF model — more commonly known as the Euro model — with the half-million or so followers of his hurricane-tracking site, Mike's Weather Page. The European model is one of a handful of models generated by programs around the globe, and it was the outlier predicting Florence would become not only a hurricane but also a strong one headed for the States. Boylan warned his followers not to get too comfortable just yet.
Hurricane Florence would go on to make landfall as a Category 1 storm that nevertheless caused deaths, power outages, and flooding for days throughout the Carolinas.
"These stations treat people almost like they shouldn't have this information," Boylan says. "I get that a lot. Like, we're adults — we can process the information."
Now, with Category 5 Hurricane Dorian threatening almost all of Florida's coast north of Miami, Boylan's followers have swelled to more than 730,000 and counting. As of Saturday, Boylan was predicting the storm would continue to grow. According to him, lightning in the eye wall shows that the storm could expand and that "it might stay at the coast, but the effects are still gonna go inland."
Too many overnight models inched west not to have Hurricane Watches up for east Florida IMO...— Mike's Weather Page (@tropicalupdate) September 1, 2019
A self-taught weather enthusiast, Boylan got into tracking storms as a hobby in 2004 after becoming frustrated that he couldn't find a single site with all of the models and predictions in one place. Fifteen years later, he's still at it. All day, he reads blogs, studies government forecasting sites, and watches the news. Then he shares it all with the public before offering his take. Then he sleeps a few hours.
"I've learned a lot," the 45-year-old says. "I keep up."
From the beginning, his rudimentary website — which packs rainbow-colored thumbnail images of every credible weather model and map in three columns on a single homepage à la Drudge Report — has always aimed to provide all the credible information, spaghetti models and predictions, and coverage in one place so he and other weather nerds could easily find it. He says he's rejected offers from website developers over the years to change the display because he updates it so regularly it wouldn't make sense.
As social media ramped up, more and more people came across Mike's Weather Page, which now has a large and loyal following.
That success has at times made him a target for trained meteorologists and veteran news reporters. In the leadup to Hurricane Florence in 2018, a Savannah, Georgia meteorologist got wind of Boylan's page and, in a terse Facebook live video, told her station's quarter-million followers that, yes, she would show the Euro model they were all so concerned about.
"Yes, I'm going to show the European model, and I'm going to show rain and what it looks like as it approaches land. Not the scary, tight isobars that a person named Mike is showing across the internet, all right?” she said, clapping between each word for emphasis. "And from a very reputable meteorologist named James Spann, in Alabama, any drunk donkey can show a European model, OK?"
As it turns out, she was paraphrasing a tweet by Spann, a fellow meteorologist who had written that "a drunk donkey could pull this data and post it," though he had never used the term in conjunction with Mike's Weather Page.
A friendly reminder; posting deterministic model output with tropical cyclone positions 10 days out to get shares and likes (or to scare people) isn’t cool. It serves no good purpose. A drunk donkey could pull this data and post it.— James Spann (@spann) September 5, 2018
Boylan's followers went berserk, and Boylan, a marketing major from the University of South Florida, chuckled as the Georgia meteorologist issued a public apology and the news station removed her video from its page. Then Boylan began making T-shirts and changed his profile picture to an inebriated ass — because for a guy whose hobby website is sponsored by Florida’s ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, that seemed pretty on-brand.
"That was my little moment," Boylan says. "All our fans were over there bashing them, and I embraced it. Some of my people took offense to it, but now I'm running with it. People really feel like they're part of this little thing I have going on."
During storm season, Boylan goes live a few times throughout each day, beginning at 9:19 a.m., which is when he's finished getting his kids on their school bus and wrapped up conversations with chatty neighbors. It's not uncommon for him to be eating or drinking during a video. During Friday's live update, he showed pictures of the brownies he made with his kids and suggested his followers get the Colorado-strength recipe if they were in the storm's path.
"I think the reason why people get drawn to me is that I’m more of an average joe like they are, and I do cuss, but I don't have a boss," he says.
And though Boylan repeatedly warns his followers that he is not an expert and that he doesn't give advice or help folks make decisions, they nevertheless turn to him for those exact things.
"I'm as unofficial as they come," he said during a Thursday video update on Dorian.
But aside from the drunk-donkey incident and a random middle-of-the-night crank call this week where a man dialed him at 2 a.m. to say he was generating a lot of hype for nothing, Boylan says his followers have nothing but positive things to say about what he offers.
"I go out on limbs a lot," he says. Last Sunday, Boylan was ready to call Dorian a hurricane while other outlets were predicting it would remain a tropical storm all the way through landfall — until Thursday, when they changed their tune and began predicting a serious hurricane.
"People definitely saw I was hyping it, but I feel vindicated," he says. "I was eating dinner at Chili's and they put the little NHC advisory out, and I was like, so relieved, you know?"
Advertising has happened organically over the years, and Boylan says it brings in some money but not much. Followers suggested a Patreon crowdfunding account, and Facebook now allows users to become supporters of his page, but neither of those options has taken off, he says. Instead, Boylan maintains work as a computer programmer, which he does from home.
During a video Thursday night, he told about 28,000 people who had tuned in that he was going to head out for the Tampa Bay Rays game.
"Cool, man. All right, that was fun. I'm gonna go have a hamburger and watch the Rays," he said. He pulled up the game stats and noticed he had gotten the time wrong: The baseball team had already played earlier that afternoon.
"Oh, well. Now I have no reason to go to Chili's," he said. "OK, I’ll read a few more things."
His live video continued for 15 more minutes.
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