Weather preparedness isn’t just about forecasting, National Weather Service director says

By Teri West

Building relationships with the public and forecasting early and accurately is critical in preparing the U.S. for dangerous weather events, National Weather Service (NWS) director Louis Uccellini emphasized at a University of Maryland (UMD) Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (AOSC) weekly seminar on Oct. 19.

Scientific advancements in forecasting have little effect if communities are not prepared to take the necessary steps to respond to extreme weather, he said. The NWS is investing in taking a more interdisciplinary approach to weather readiness, including embracing social sciences and building relationships with decision-makers in local governments to establish a sense of trust.

NWS weather prediction has advanced greatly in recent decades, which Uccellini demonstrated by comparing parallel tornado events. In 1974, tornados were predicted the night before they occurred while in 2011 they were predicted four to six days in advance. However, tornados in both years resulted in nearly the same number of fatalities.

“We didn’t have a concept of how people were reacting to our warnings,” Uccellini said. “Not a clue, quite frankly.”

After recognizing this shortcoming, the NWS decided to invest in social sciencesto better understand the public it was serving.

One success story was the response to atornado this past February in New Orleans. Uccellini watched the destruction on TV, seeing familiar buildings destroyed and neighborhoods shattered, bracing himself for the number of fatalities. He was shocked to hear that there were none, and later learned that it was because the weather service had been collaborating with New Orleans departments and community groups on disaster preparedness for four years. 

In his presentation, Uccellini also reviewed the NWS’ success with hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. The NWS correctly predicted the direction of Irma’s turn up Florida about a week in advance, which allowed Florida to declare a state of emergency six days pre-landfall. Uccellini was proud that all three hurricanes had fewer than 100 fatalities on initial impact.

He also emphasized how extreme the events were, particularly the 50 inch-rainfall for Harvey.

“If you were to have told me in my career that a weather service would ever make a 50-inch rainfall prediction…I’d say you’re nuts,” he said. “And then if you told me, in fact, it actually verified, I’d say you know, ‘you’re making it up.’”

The NWS is the U.S. government’s weather agency and is responsible for an area that ranges from Guam to Puerto Rico. Uccellini became the director in 2013. He was previously the director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction.