National Weather Service Director talks to students about extreme weather prep after historic hurricane season

By Greta Easthom

Local preparation and building public trust in the forecast are the two main components to reducing and communicating risk during extreme weather systems, the National Weather Service Director told students and faculty on Oct. 19.

After this past hurricane season, Dr. Louis W. Uccellini had the first-hand experience to lead a discussion to future forecasters in his seminar “Building a Weather-Ready Nation: What it Means to Your Future.” Uccellini illustrated several tornadoes and hurricanes he’s been through in his extensive career as a meteorologist, NOAA Assistant Administrator and former NCEP director.

The audience was predominantly from the Atmospheric & Oceanic Science major, however, the College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences and Institute for Physical Science and Technology were also represented.

“The NWS is the first agency you come into contact with every day,” said Uccellini, giving the example of people checking their phone weather apps in the morning. “The general public has to trust you.”

However, Uccellini acknowledged, “The only thing I can guarantee is I can’t give a perfect forecast.”

Uccellini said it’s important to have a working relationship with the local spaces they serve.

“We have to be invited in,” he said. “We can’t ultimately make the decision to evacuate—that could be made at the state, county, or village level.”

There has been an increased population vulnerability in coastal areas, said Uccellini.

“Evacuation decisions have to start in Lousiana 5-7 days in advance. There’s no more hurricane party that can move people day of,” he said.

Uccellini illustrated how forecasters’ lead-time and knowledge of impending severe storm systems has greatly increased since the 1970s but said public perception of weather watches still needs improvement.  For example, in Wisconsin in April 1974 lead-time on a storm began only once the storm touched the ground. In April 2011, another tornado broke out around the same region but with 24 minutes of increased lead-time. However, 314 people still died in the 2011 storm as compared to 316 people in 1974.

“How do you measure success?” Uccellini asked the crowd, “How do we connect decision making?”

This past February, with the East New Orleans tornado Uccellini got his answer.

“I have to tell you, this was happening on live TV and I’m thinking, ah crap, there’s a major tornado in the area,” Uccellini said, “But zero people died.”

Uccellini said the reason for zero hurricane-related deaths from this storm was that the “first thing out of local leaders mouths was the local preparedness activities NWS had been conducting for four years and the deep relationships NWS formed with the emergency managers.”

“It was really interesting how NOAA’s forecasts have improved over past 20 years as well as their vision,” said senior atmospheric and oceanic science major Keenan Eure.

“When you establish that trust with the local officials, the first responders, it makes forecasts several days out in the long-run easier to communicate,” said Eure, “Several times he mentioned with Maria, Harvey, and Irma how the death count was much lower than Katrina.”

Uccellini said that there were less than 100 deaths strictly related to the storm for hurricane Maria, but there were over 1,500 for Katrina.

Eure thought the lower death count was a function of everyone being on the same page.

“Harvey we did predict the stalling —that was a huge forecast,” said Uccellini. “But we were working around the clock because we needed to map out where to evacuate people.”

For Irma, the state of emergency being declared in Florida six days before the storm was “not a bad official forecast,” said Uccellini.

Uccellini added that NWS is looking for scientists who can deal with the atmosphere, the biosphere, the cryosphere and other natural and social systems in a coupled sense.

“If you’re going to be on the desk at the National Hurricane Center and you’re just looking at one model—you’re not going to last.”

“It’s definitely important to react appropriately in these situations,” said senior atmospheric and oceanic science and broadcast journalism double major Monique Robinson.

“The real issue is not that forecasts aren’t appropriately keeping up, it’s that people don’t trust the forecast or physically understand the risk associated,” she said.

“I know this campus is going to take [forecasts] seriously because two students were killed by a tornado,” said Uccellini, referencing a 2001 tornado on the University’s campus that picked up a car near Easton Hall and dropped it over the woods.

Uccellini is hoping a “Weather Act” will soon be enacted into law.

“We have to focus on public safety…” said Uccellini, “Part of our mission is to save lives.”

 

 

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