CLOSE: MAX MAYFIELD
OUTGOING NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER DIRECTOR DISCUSSES NOAA'S HURRICANE
PROGRAM AND ADVICE FOR HIS SUCCESSOR
7, 2006 — Max Mayfield will retire as director of the NOAA
National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., on Jan. 3, 2007 —
after having served 34 years with NOAA.
National Hurricane Center, part of the NOAA
National Weather Service, has been the focal point of the nation's
hurricane forecast and warning program for 50 years. Its mission is to
save lives, mitigate property loss and improve economic efficiency by
issuing the best watches, warnings and forecasts of hazardous tropical
weather, and by increasing the public’s understanding of these hazards.
Mayfield has overseen the talented team of hurricane specialists, technicians
and support scientists at the center since 2000, and together they have
endured several highly active Atlantic hurricane seasons.
as a satellite meteorologist with NOAA in 1972, Mayfield quickly rose
through the ranks to become not only a well respected hurricane expert,
but a nationally recognized advocate for hurricane
awareness/preparedness, reminding the 50 million people who live in
U.S. coastal counties from Maine to Texas that they are all in the path
of a future storm. Mayfield also is the current chairman of the World
Meteorological Organization’s Regional Association-IV Hurricane
Committee, which supports 26 members from Atlantic and eastern Pacific
the many awards Mayfield has received while at NOAA, his most recent include
Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Service and being named ABC’s
World News “Person of the Week” following Hurricane
Katrina in 2005. NOAA
and the nation agree that Mayfield has played a key role in advancing
the agency’s hurricane mission through improved forecasts, products
shares his thoughts on his career/retirement, the NOAA National Hurricane
Center and hurricanes in general.
Q: How has becoming a household name and one of the nation's most
recognized hurricane forecasters affected you?
I think that people who know me would say that I haven't really changed.
I'm always honored when people come up to me at a restaurant or in a store
and say thanks for the efforts over the years. One thing that has changed
for me — I no longer buy water or batteries or other hurricane supplies.
A lot of folks who see me doing that think I know something they don't.
I now let my wife buy the hurricane supplies.
What is it like to be Max Mayfield leading up to a U.S. hurricane strike?
The Mission of the NOAA National Hurricane Center, is "to
save lives, mitigate property loss and improve economic efficiency by
issuing the best watches, warnings, forecasts and analyses of hazardous
tropical weather, and by increasing understanding of these hazards."
During a hurricane landfall threat, I find that if you focus on "saving
lives", everything else seems to fall into place.
Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that it won't take a Category 5 hurricane
to create havoc in a place like New Orleans, La.
are your worst fears regarding future hurricanes? Will we see another
A: My worst fear is that we will have another loss of
life like we did in Katrina. That is simply not acceptable. In regard
to seeing another Katrina, I can assure you that we will see hurricanes
even stronger than Katrina. The NOAA National Hurricane Center post analysis
on Katrina rated it as a Category 3 hurricane at the time of landfall
in extreme southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi. The strongest winds
in Katrina did not move over New Orleans. Instead, we think the city experienced
Category 1 and 2 winds on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. And, Hurricane
Rita did not hit Galveston and Houston — it made landfall over the
less populated southwestern Louisiana. And, Hurricane Wilma made a direct
hit on the southwest Florida coast — not the southeast Florida coast
where 7 million people live. So as bad as the 2005 hurricane season was,
it could have been worse.
What do you perceive as being the most important hurricane and/or hurricane
forecasting issues in the future?
A: Intensity. We have a success story for the American
taxpayer on hurricane track forecasting. The observations from satellite,
aircraft and radar are improved. The computers are faster and the computer
models are much more sophisticated. All of these advances have led to
improved track forecasting. In fact, we have cut the track forecast errors
in half over the past 15 years. That is the success story. But we have
not made significant improvements in intensity forecasting. On average,
we do a pretty good job, but even with today’s technologies, we
have not had great success catching the rapidly intensifying hurricanes.
Of all the tropical storms and hurricanes that make landfall in the United
States, only about 20 percent of them are major hurricanes (Category 3
or higher on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale). Yet that 20 percent
causes more than 80 percent of the damage. Most major hurricanes become
major hurricanes by going through rapid intensification. The computer
models don't forecast that well and neither does the official forecast.
If you think back to Katrina, Rita and Wilma, they were all major hurricanes
well before they made landfall, which got people's attention. One of my
greatest fears is having people go to bed at night preparing for a Category
1 or Category 2 hurricane and wake up to a Katrina or an Andrew. We
need more research dollars focused on unraveling the mystery of rapid
changes in hurricane intensity. And, of course, improvements in forecasting
track and size must be continued.
In May of 2000, when you were named
director of the NOAA National Hurricane Center, you stated that your
goal was to "help improve the warning lead times and increase the
center's understanding of the tracks and intensity of hurricanes."
Do you feel you have succeeded in achieving this goal?
A: With the improvements in track forecasting, the NOAA National
Hurricane Center has definitely improved the lead times that people have
to prepare for hurricanes. The NOAA
Gulfstream-IV jet that we fly around hurricanes to collect observations
has more than paid for itself. The NOAA National Weather Service Global
Forecast System model guidance has improved 10 to 15 percent in the critical
watch/warning periods with the G-IV data. And NOAA has a plan for improving
intensity forecasting with the new Hurricane
Weather Research and Forecast (HWRF) model that will be available
next season. I would caution people that we should not expect miracles,
however. Intensity forecasting is a real challenge and it will take some
time before we see significant improvements, in my opinion. So my answer
is that yes, we have improved on the lead times and the track forecasting,
and we are headed in the right direction in improving intensity forecasting.
But as we continue to develop the coastline, we need to make even faster
Can you tell us about your most memorable moment while working at the
NOAA National Hurricane Center?
A: I'm not sure I have one most memorable moment. Every storm
and hurricane is different, and I have learned to expect surprises. If
I had to name the most memorable hurricane, it would of course be Hurricane
Katrina. I wanted to be able to leave the hurricane center on Saturday,
August 27, 2005, knowing that I had done everything possible to prevent
a large loss of life. I called the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi,
and the mayor of New Orleans to make sure they understood the gravity
of the situation. The forecasts were good. The coordination between the
NOAA National Hurricane Center and the local NOAA National Weather Service
offices was good. The coordination between the NOAA National Weather Service
and emergency management was good. I don't know what else could have been
done by the center or the agency.
What will you miss most when you retire?
I will definitely miss the staff and the operational aspect — the
science, the forecasting and collaborations. It is going to be difficult
to sit at home during the next hurricane landfall threat. One regret that
I will have is not having the pleasure of working with some of our younger
meteorologists on staff. Some of these sharp folks I can't promote fast
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring meteorologists?
A: I would like to tell them and others in forecasting
that it is not all about the meteorology. I want to change outcomes. In
the hurricane program, that means saving lives. You can't do that with
the meteorology alone. You have to motivate people, especially the decision
makers, to take the right action during the extreme event. Relationships
with emergency managers and the media are extremely important.
Any advice for the next director of the NOAA National Hurricane Center?
A: I asked former NHC Director Bob Sheets for advice years ago.
Bob said to maintain a strong relationship with the emergency management
community and the media. That was good advice and I will pass that along
to the next director. I would add that the battle against the hurricane
is won outside the hurricane season. And the message needs to stay consistent.
We want every individual, every family, every business and every community
to have a hurricane plan in place and be able to execute that plan before
the next hurricane season.
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