P!N’s Julia Dawson asks National Hurricane Center Director, Bill Read for the path forward this storm season given the threat of the Gulf oil spill and predictions for a rough season
Q: NOAA’s website is a wealth of information regarding the Gulf oil spill. In addition to tracking the spill, you and your team have assembled impact predictions for everything from coral reefs to Mississippi River deadzones. This is a public service of the highest order. Thank you.
What do you, Bill Read the meteorologist and operations chief, see as some of the most important storm preparedness lessons coming out of this spill?
A: From a hurricane preparedness point of view, I don’t see anything different. The spill is a separate entity that simply adds to the problem the way toxic waste complicated matters after Katrina. All severe storms [crossing populated areas] risk releasing hazardous materials kept there, so we are and must always be prepared to remove hazardous substances spread by storms.
Q: From Climate-gate to the Oil spill and offshore drilling debates, it seems as if private companies are pitted against public and civic groups in questions of protecting our wetlands, slowing climate change and other with serious implications for long-term storm preparedness work. What is the best way to get out of the finger pointing and into a path forward? Where can both sides improve?
A: Having worked a lot with the media amidst weather crises, I believe that those forums are where the finger pointing begins. A lot of people believe that what they hear on 24 hour news stations is the whole truth. Thus, I feel that more restraint from all the players involved will help us move toward more solution driven dialogue and fewer blame games…In some ways our ability to advance technologically has far outstripped our ability to advance in terms of human relations. These types of disasters are not new. But today, we can spend so much more time exchanging information versus decades earlier where there was relatively controlled information access. While this broader exchange is positive in many ways, it can also complicate and detract from finding a solution if facts are blurred and the focus turned away from problem solving.
Q: Colorado State University released data in April predicting an exceptionally active Atlantic storm season, and NOAA has concurred. In January, your team was able to increase the lead time for hurricane warnings and watches by 12 hours.
What further advances are NOAA and NHC researchers working on?
A: We have a 10 year project underway for hurricane forecast improvement. The next big break we need in forecasting concerns the rapid changes in intensity. A storm in the Gulf, for instance, may change intensity rapidly the day before it strikes land. Precise measurements of intensity during those final hours are rare and crucial for our predictions and recommendations.
Q: As a storm preparedness non-profit, we strive to inform the public about the dangers of severe storms in a way that inspires them to act, and specifically, to prepare themselves.
What have your experiences at the forefront of severe storm preparedness work– from being an on-board meteorologist with the Hurricane Hunters, then a National Weather Service program director all the way to your current role as head of the NHC — taught you about inspiring people to take the initiative to get prepared?
A: For short-term storms like floods and tornadoes, convincing people that they are indeed at risk is key. Information must come from more than one source, and must include imagery such as radar that prove to people that their area is at risk.
For long-term preparedness work of the sort hurricane zones especially need, it’s about creating a culture where preparedness is a natural part of daily life, not something that occurs last minute just before start of each storm season.