Craig Fugate, the candid former FEMA director under President Barack Obama, stepped away from his position in January, while National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb announced his resignation in March.
Fugate, who served as Florida’s emergency manager before taking the Washington job in 2009, said he was “pissed” when he learned Knabb quit to go to The Weather Channel, where Knabb worked before taking the lead hurricane center job five years ago.
“We figured Rick would be there 10 years,” said Fugate, lauding Knabb’s media savvy and meteorological skill. “Now the question is, who is going to replace him? And you need someone who is a communicator.”
Knabb, whose official last day is May 13, was unavailable for an interview last week, but said in a March statement that his new Weather Channel job as an on-air hurricane expert will mean less travel and more family time.
“I am as determined as ever to help prepare the nation in advance and to keep the public safe and resilient when the next hurricane strikes,” Knabb said.
Knabb and Fugate will speak this week at the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans, which runs Monday through Thursday.
Their discussions will be intermixed with meetings on forecast advances, emergency communication and a new conference addition — managing terrorism attacks and active-shooter training.
David Tait, a conference organizer, said emergency managers attending the conference are interested in more than just hurricanes. When a “security summit” was added to the end of the 2016 conference in Orlando, it was a popular draw.
“We offered classes similar to these last year on the Friday following the conference and had several hundred people stay,” Tait said. “We decided to try adding them in with our regular classes this year.”
But the main attraction for conference-goers is to learn about new hurricane forecast products they’ll see this season and new technology that experts hope will improve accuracy and warning times.
Groundbreaking maps will be used experimentally this year to give people a better idea of when damaging winds will reach them. Forecasters hope the colorful graphics, which give an estimated time of arrival and most likely arrival time for tropical storm-force winds, will help people make potentially life-saving decisions, such as when to evacuate or finish boarding up.
Also new will be a revamped cone of uncertainty. For the first time in more than a decade, the National Hurricane Center overhauled the popular graphic adding softer colors, cleaner lettering and a shaded area that will show the reach of storm-force winds.
Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center, said last month that while the cone is a good early briefing tool to get a sense of where a storm is, it tells you nothing about the potential impacts or size of the storm.
“It has been a big problem really since we started issuing the cone,” Brown said. “As track forecasts have improved, the cone has been shrinking, but storms haven’t gotten any smaller, so more and more impacts are occurring outside the cone.”
Helping people understand potential hurricane damages — flooding, storm surge, beach erosion and structural failures — instead of just knowing wind speeds is something Knabb excelled at, Fugate said.
“A perfect forecast isn’t going to do you any good if you don’t understand what it means,” Fugate said. “(Knabb) shepherded people. He accomplished moving from a single forecast to the storm surge warnings and wind warnings.”
New forecast technology available to the hurricane center this season includes the revolutionary GOES-16 weather satellite that was launched in November.
The satellite can scan the Earth five times faster and with four times the resolution of current satellites. It carries the Advanced Baseline Imager — a 16-channel camera. Older satellites have just five channels.
“The higher spatial resolution in the data is a very big advance,” said Mark DeMaria, technology and science branch chief for the hurricane center. “We’re positive this will improve our ability to forecast.”
Fugate, who lives in Gainesville and is a senior adviser for the crisis communication firm Blue Dot, said he’ll always be an emergency manager at heart and is focusing on things he’s passionate about. That includes fighting to keep strict building codes in Florida and working on property insurance reform.
As far as the hurricane center and FEMA being run by interim leaders, he said both organizations are in good shape to handle whatever nature has in store come June 1.
“They have a great batch of forecasters at the hurricane center, and we worked diligently in FEMA to build up the team so when we left, they were well-staffed and managed,” Fugate said. “The big thing for Florida this time of year is if you live in Florida, you have a hurricane problem.”
Follow Post weather reporter Kimberly Miller’s reports this week from the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans at weatherplus.blog.PalmBeachPost.com and on twitter at @kmillerweather
Daily conference highlights:
Monday: 2017 hurricane season outlook
Tuesday: Communicating forecast uncertainty in Hurricane Hermine and Hurricane Matthew
Wednesday: Panel discussion on Hurricane Matthew with the Florida Division of Emergency Management
Thursday: New technology and products to aid in forecasting and hazard communication