With storm season weeks away, National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said now is the time to get weather-ready.
“It’s important to be prepared not just on the coast but inland, especially from inland flooding,” said Graham, who was in Lake Charles this week for the Louisiana Emergency Management Conference at L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort. “The reality is it’s the water that’s killing people. In the last three years, 83 percent of the fatalities have been from inland flooding and more than half of those have been in vehicles.”
Graham, an Arizona transplant who has spent most of his career in Louisiana, took over as the hurricane center’s director a little more than a year ago.
“Everyone said when I got the job to hang on tight, and I think that’s what I’m doing,” he said with a laugh. “I think one of the interesting things is the international component of this job is a lot bigger than I thought.”
The National Hurricane Center is responsible for coordinating the watches, warnings and forecasts for not only the United States, but also the Caribbean nations, Mexico and Central America, he said.
“It’s been an amazing journey to talk to meteorologists and emergency managers in all these different countries because we all face the same thing — getting a forecast early enough to work a timeline to get people safe,” he said. “I think it’s been so amazing to see the commonalities and problems that we face, they’re facing the exact same problems. That’s why we work together, it’s important and so critical.”
Graham said from a young age he knew he wanted a weather-related career.
“I was evacuated from my house at about 6 years old, and interesting enough I grew up in Arizona,” he said. “We were being evacuated because of flooding and I couldn’t figure out why so I went to my encyclopedias, looked it up and lo and behold it was a from a tropical system. Since then I was just so fascinated with weather. My mom told me I wrote observations on my calendar every single day for years and years and years.”
Graham earned a Bachelor’s of Atmospheric Science Degree at the University of Arizona and attended Mississippi State University, where he earned a Master of Science in Geosciences.
His first weather-related job was as a television meteorologist while in graduate school.
“That was an incredible experience,” he said. “It was one where you really had the chance to look at the science of something that was understood and actionable. Through that, I became really interested in the National Weather Service and their warning process and how they issue warnings.”
He joined NWS in 1994 and was assigned to their Slidell office.
“Out of my almost 25 years in the weather service, 15 were in Louisiana,” he said.
He said the technology from when he started to where it is now is “night and day.”
“They had just put Doppler Radar in so it was brand new when I got to the Weather Service,” he said. “There was no Internet, of course there was no social media. There were giant computers that gave up a lot of heat and were very noisy. I’ve gotten to see the evolution of those computers to what we have today, and it’s just an amazing difference.”
Graham said advanced technology now is powering next-level weather forecasts.
“The modeling keeps getting better,” he said. “We’re doing so much better with the hurricane track forecast. If you look at last season with Hurricane Florence we were talking about the rainfall forecast five days ahead of time with pretty much accuracy and the storm surge forecast, as well, four days ahead of time.”
Graham said every storm is “completely different.”
“We always tell people don’t compare one storm to another,” he said. “Even a little wiggle can matter or a small change 30 miles out can make all the difference in the amount of rainfall and the amount of wind somebody sees.”
Graham said weather watchers have at their fingertip advanced forecasting tools through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite.
“We can see things we’ve never see before, look deep inside a hurricane and see the structure of it and how that is impacting the models,” he said. “Plus we can reach people no matter where they live through their phones and social media, which is a huge leap forward for public safety.”
Graham said he’s often asked what his office does when it’s not hurricane season.
“The answer is we’re incredibly busy,” he said. “We’re getting everyone ready, talking about the next season, we actually host hundreds of people at our office to do the training for the next season, talking about everything that’s new, talking about how to interpret that information.”
Graham said the longer residents go between storms, the more there is a tendency to forget the dangers of them.
“Every single year, we have to prepare,” he said. “No. 1 is to know your risk. Every year we talk about having a plan, it always seems to be in the vernacular, but the reality is what do you write a plan for? We just moved from New Orleans to Miami so my plan has to change. My threat was different from where I lived to where I live now. We understood the risk and rewrote our family plan. Are you on the coast or are you inland near a river or a low spot that floods? If that’s the case, that’s the place you don’t need to be in a hurricane. Are there a lot of trees around your house? Know your risk and that’s what you base your plan on.”