RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Jan. 6, 2002 -- — It was the biggest New Year's Eve party in the world.
Roughly 2 million people crowded shoulder to shoulder along Rio de Janeiro's famous Copacabana Beach ringing in the New Year with a dazzling display of fireworks, offerings to the mythical sea goddess Yemanja, beer and champagne, hugs and kisses, and music that resonated all night long.
But when dawn broke over Corcovada mountain, Rio's flamboyant Mayor Cesar Maya was seeing red — and it had nothing to do with the alcohol that flowed the night before.
Maya had expected even bigger crowds. He had bragged that 2 to 2.5 million people would celebrate the "Ano Novo" in his spectacular city. When "only" 1.5 to 2 million people showed up, he blamed Rio's chief meteorologist, Luis Austin. And now he's threatening to take Austin to court.
The meteorologist, who spotted a storm cell just north of Rio and another to the south, predicted a horrendous storm on Dec. 31. He went so far as to warn Rio residents, known as Cariocas, to stay at home, batten down the hatches and avoid the beaches.
His forecast was dead wrong. As it turned out, a subtropical jet stream whisked the threatening storm out to sea. The skies that night were crystal clear.
"I've been forecasting for 35 years and I've made some mistakes. But I've also been right a lot of the time. The records show I'm accurate nearly 90 percent of the time," Austin said. "I just wanted people to be safe — and now I'm being sued?"
Accused of ‘Sounding a False Alarm’
The mayor has assigned the case to his chief prosecutor, Alberto Guimaraes. "We will investigate and if it's shown Austin made a deliberate bad forecast, we'll charge him with 'sounding a false alarm,' " said Guimaraes. In Brazil, that's a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in prison. "I believe this led to smaller crowds which also hurt business," he said.
The weatherman is livid and is seeking judicial revenge. "I'm going to sue them for wrecking my reputation and questioning my ethics," said Austin. "The mayor is blaming me for the fact that the fireworks were not as spectacular this year. He is the one who is unpredictable and he's eccentric."
Antonio Brasil, a local columnist who writes about politics and the media, put it all in perspective. "Residents of Rio take weather forecasts about as seriously as they take their daily horoscope," Brasil told ABCNEWS. "If Brazilians took weather forecasts, economic forecasts and political forecasts seriously there wouldn't be a Brazil today. In fact, a recent public opinion poll found 77 percent of people here agree with the statement, 'Brazilians don't take their country all that seriously.' "
The investigation begins today. The prosecutor says he'll know by the end of the month whether to file charges. It seems likely. A local civil defense weather forecast for the same period of time called for partly cloudy weather giving way to clear skies. It will be a central element of the government's case.