Labour of Love
- March 31st, 2011
- in Yachting
Labour of Love
Sara Sommers spends it all on the weather
Access to up-to-date and accurate weather information is crucial for those whose livelihoods and safety are affected by the vagaries of nature; that is, almost everyone. Of all the sources of weather information available in the BVI, only one is operated by a resident, a woman who can tell just by looking out her window if there's rain or volcanic dust or not a cloud in the sky.
Sara Sommers, whose website weathercarib.com is the go-to source for many concerned about Caribbean weather, spends countless hours and much of her income supporting what is basically a labour of love. During the hurricane season, the site can receive upwards of 8,000 unique visitors in a day—in quiet times, perhaps a quarter of that.
Growing up in southern Missouri—tornado country—Sara took training with the National Weather Service, where she became an advanced weather spotter in 1983 and has maintained that volunteer status ever since. It was sailing that brought her to the Caribbean, and during 1998's Hurricane Mitch, she and her friends were struck by the fact that there was no information available for weather south of Cuba.
Talking to P & Y recently, Sara said, “I started sifting through the entire Internet world for those few things that would give me a picture of what was going on with Mitch. That was what started weathercarib.com.”
Sara began tracking every hurricane or “every hint of a hurricane” that appeared in the region.
“The real advantage to my reporting is that if I read information saying that we've got north swells at nine second intervals and I look out my window and see northeast swells at 11 seconds mixed with north-west swells, I can say that,” she said. “A forecast that's generated in San Juan isn't going to be that detailed.”
“I want to let people know about hazards,” she emphasized.
The site sometimes demands as much as eight to ten hours of her time in a given day, she said.
“It's a public safety issue and one which fits in with a lot of the other volunteer work I do,” the weatherwoman said. “We want everyone who comes down here and contributes to our economy to have a good experience and go home with good stories to tell friends so they'll come down and support our economy too.”
In the site’s roughly eight years of service, it has expanded its reach, she explaind.
“When I check the IP addresses of who's on my website, it's being used by people at FEMA, at state emergency management, at universities, military bases, NOAA—plus people in Britain, Canada and elsewhere,” she said.
Designing the site, Sara, who is an IT professional in her “real” life, chose to keep it “text-based, as fast as possible and opening in separate windows. That way I can look at information in side-by-side windows and not be switching back and forth,” she said
Plagued by continuing health problems, Sara struggles at times to keep the site updated. She supports it from her own pocket and with some donated server time as well as donations solicited on the site by way of PayPal. Facing surgery and massive expenses, she says “the site is low on my list of priorities right now. If this were an actual business, with a trade license and a structure, I'd like to get a couple of people started learning, training them so we could expand what's available.”
Sara said she'd love to have local contributors on Virgin Gorda and the other islands sending her information on local conditions.
Small communities such as ours rely on the volunteer efforts of its members to get things done. The BVI has a wonderful record in that regard, be it the several Rotary and Lions chapters, church groups, Red Cross, VISAR and others, people chip in to help and lend their talents to situations were they might be useful. Sara’s efforts seem to go above and beyond the norm at high personal cost and to great result. In trying to assess the impact of the local weatherwoman’s efforts, Richard Wooldridge of Island Yacht Management said, “Her weather site is the first stop for anyone watching the weather in the Northeast Caribbean. Her synopsis is usually right on the money.”
It's one thing to spend an afternoon pulling weeds at a traffic roundabout but quite another to bring years of advanced training and skills to providing a service that can literally be life-saving—and to drain your own bank account while doing it.