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Record demand for information brought down Weather Service website

The National Weather Service experienced nearly six times its normal volume of Web traffic as a major winter storm moved across the country Sunday night, leading to a slowdown and partial shutdown of its website and NWSChat, the tool the agency uses to communicate with emergency managers across the country.

The agency began receiving up to 20 million hits an hour on its Weather.gov site starting Sunday evening, compared to the typical rate of 70 million hits per day, said National Weather Service Deputy Director Laura Furgione. The storm is having a far greater impact than most land-falling hurricanes, she said.

By Monday, the "catastrophic" service overload was "severe to the point where we had equipment failures," said NWS Spokesman Curtis Carey. "The volume was so extreme, so historic, that I think the equipment held out for as long" as possible, he said.

On Monday night, NWS replaced some outdated equipment with parts officials had intended to install in March. The site remained slow Tuesday but was operating near full capacity Wednesday as traffic to the site dropped.

Carey said the service's No. 1 priority is getting the weather forecast and warnings out quickly because lives are in jeopardy. NWS relies on different computer systems to support other users, such as The Weather Channel and AccuWeather. But with NWSChat down, the agency was unable to provide some information to emergency management organizations in some locations, which Carey declined to identify.

He said other services, such as local media and Weather.com, a private website, continued to operate, so NWS was confident warnings were getting out.

The National Weather Service Employees Organization, however, said in a statement Monday that the failures put people's lives and property at risk. "All eyes are on this blizzard, but the NWS is facing another emergency as it struggles to get its warnings and forecasts out," the union's President Dan Sobien said.

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