Dept. of Media

Dry Spell The Washington Post breaks some news about local weather trends.

Alice Lewis

Washington Post reporter Jenna Johnson had a nice lede for her story on beat cops in Northeast. On the front of last Saturday’s Metro page, she described how the cops were encountering all kinds of mayhem on their rounds—a stabbing with a plastic fork, a gang fight, and other incidents.

Then it started raining, and Johnson described what (didn’t) happen next:

The police radio went quiet.

If only it rained every night in Police Service Area 103, two officers mused as they drove down the suddenly calm streets and deserted alleys in the neighborhoods between Eastern Market and RFK Stadium. Maybe then crime would drop, open-air drug markets would dry up and teenagers would fight less.

But it doesn’t often rain during Washington summers. Occasional showers just make the air more humid, kids more antsy, druggies more riled and crews more turf conscious…

Emphasis added to highlight exaggeration and error in service of a smooth feature transition. Only a Bangladeshi, after all, could plausibly make this claim about seasonal precipitation around D.C.

When asked to explain what on earth she was thinking, Johnson, a summer intern, replied, “When it does [rain], it doesn’t just pour and pour and pour, people told me.”

Perhaps Johnson and her editors missed this story, which ran several days before, also on Metro’s front page: “Aftermath of a Deluge; A Year After Fairfax Flooding, Neighbors Celebrate Yet Still Fear Storms.” The story discussed the famous inundation of June 2006, a regional precipitation event that went on for days and would have delighted Police Service Area 103’s finest.

Those officers—their grumbling notwithstanding—have the luxury of practicing their craft in a plush and moist summer climate. Take a look at how D.C. stacks up against other metropolises on the summer rainfall front. The following tallies measure average rainfall in inches from June through September:

Miami 31.34
Chicago 15.03
D.C. 14.02
Boston 13.12
Dallas 9.80
Seattle 4.93
Los Angeles 0.51
San Francisco 0.41
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

If you don’t trust government stats to make the point, then just take the word of Douglas LeComte. A drought specialist with the National Weather Service’s climate prediction center, LeComte holds that summertime rain around here is pretty routine. “Afternoon thunderstorms are not at all uncommon, and we get them especially with cold fronts and sometimes with tropical weather systems as well,” says LeComte.

And few regions in the country can match D.C. for summertime showers: “There are areas in the deep South that get reliable thunderstorms in the afternoon….We’re pretty much comparable to the rest of the Northeast. Then you have extreme dryness in the west and even in the Pacific Northwest. The plains, of course, though not this year, tend to be drier than we are,” says LeComte.

For most papers, miscasting their region’s weather patterns in such an incidental manner is a misdemeanor offense. But not at the Post, whose meteorological obsessions rival only the Weather Channel’s. Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. loves weather stories and pushes them in all seasons, under the rationale that few things have such an impact on people’s lives. The result is a steady presence of winds, heat, cold, and snow in the paper’s headlines.

Bob McCartney, the Post’s top Metro editor, suggests Dept. of Media might be overreaching a bit on the summer-­precipitation thing. “The story makes clear that rain happens,” writes McCartney via e-mail. “For the police, it doesn’t rain enough. That’s the point.”

OK, but D.C. averages about 10 days of rainfall per month throughout the summer, a rate that LeComte says is “not especially dry or especially wet.”

That sounds roughly like Downie’s take: “In my experience, we’ve had very dry summers in Washington and very rainy ones, but seldom a summer without interesting weather stories.”

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