The Weatherman

The Weatherman

John L. "Jack" Hayes, 63, director of the National Weather Service and assistant administrator for weather services at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring

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Meteorology—in addition to being clouds and tornadoes and hurricanes—is applied mathematics, and that’s really what my interest is in life.

I have a Ph.D. in meteorology. I understand the threat the weather plays. I have 28 years of being in operations in the Air Force, and a total of nearly nine years at the weather service. With the events of 2011, I’m thankful that I have the background I have.

In 2006, at the invitation of the World Meteorological Organization [a United Nations agency], my wife and I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I was director of the World Weather Watch. The job took me places I never thought I’d go to in my life—Africa, Australia, Russia.

I’ve been in the National Weather Service as director since September 2007. Our job is to furnish as accurate a forecast or warning as we can. Right now I’m really focused on tornadoes, because that’s what killed a lot of Americans last year.

The United States sets the world standards. We’ve got tornado warnings distributed on average 15 minutes before a tornado strikes a community, in some cases 30 minutes before. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. But we still have a ways to go.

One of the things we’re doing right now is trying to anticipate America’s needs in 2020. Our strategic plan talks about a weather-ready nation—one where you have no unnecessary loss of life, one where you have no unnecessary damage to personal property, one where the kinds of economic impacts we see in America are a thing of the past.

My goal is for Americans to understand and respect that there is a severe weather emergency. How do you get that message across? We want to involve leaders in emergency management, people in social sciences and behavioral sciences and have them tell us what they think we need to do.

Giving Americans the information in advance is what we’re all about. When we put out the tornado warning in April 2011 for the St. Louis area and not a person died—you really feel good.  

I’m also proud of our Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project, which bridges research and operational components to improve hurricane forecasts. When we knew eight days before that Hurricane Irene would be off the coast of North Carolina, we had enough confidence in our forecast to plan a flight. A week later, we flew for 12 hours into the eye. It was rewarding to see our model make the right prediction.

Flying in the cockpit was exciting for me, to see the forces of nature. People always say, “Why don’t we control the weather?” This storm was a couple of hundred miles across. How do we control that? How are we going to do anything to that storm to change its intensity? It’s a massive force of nature, and you’ve got to respect it.

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