National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Editor’s Note: Ken Graham became the director of NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in 2018. He was recently recognized by the Partnership for Public Service as a finalist for the prestigious Service to America Medal for coordinating the national response to the most active hurricane season on record, during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

For Ken Graham, 2020 was deeply personal. During the most active Atlantic hurricane season in 170 years of recorded history, he’d inform those in harm’s way of 11 landfalling U.S. tropical cyclones. That is a challenge unto itself. But it was also happening in the middle of the worst global pandemic in more than a century.

As director of the National Hurricane Center, Graham knew what he had to do first: take care of his team. “You can always say you care about the mission but I look at this building, and I deeply care for the people in it,” he said. “We couldn’t lose this place, not in a season like that when people are counting on us.”

So, with the 2020 hurricane season quickly approaching in the throes of the pandemic, Graham led the way early to protect his team. CDC guidelines were followed to have staff work at home in support of the on-site hurricane specialists to limit exposure to Covid-19. NHC’s Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) was activated to issue marine forecasts from remote locations. Markings were placed on the floor to limit the spacing between people who were in the office, and masks were mandatory. Enhanced sanitation measures were put in effect.

All-hands meetings, usually done in-person every few months, were conducted virtually several times each month. Graham admits they got to him. “I think there were three all-hands meetings I had water in my eyes when I told everyone I loved them,” he said. “I was telling people if you need something, call me anytime, and they did.” As the NHC staff rallied to adapt to this new work paradigm, many faced personal challenges, and Graham was there to support each and every one on his staff.

NHC Director Ken Graham provides one of ~100 media interviews regarding Hurricane Laura. August 26, 2020.
						Credit: Dennis Feltgen, NOAA Communications.
NHC Director Ken Graham provides one of ~100 media interviews regarding Hurricane Laura. August 26, 2020.
Credit: Dennis Feltgen, NOAA Communications.

“They open up and talk to him about whatever problems they’re going through. We never would have made it through the season without him,” said Jamie Rhome, NHC Storm Surge Specialist.

It took a lot of drive and determination by Graham to ensure a mentally and physically safe environment for the NHC staff. But he’d had plenty of experience managing weather operations during a crisis. Before his tenure at NHC, Graham worked for more than a decade as the Meteorologist-in-Charge of the National Weather Service forecast office in New Orleans. One of his challenges there occurred in 2010 with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico southeast of New Orleans. It was Graham who led the weather support for the National Weather Service.

“We had people deployed so we had to be sure to take care of their well-being, since they were working 12-hour shifts for months and months. I was worried about the staff, and made sure to take care of them and keep them pumped up” he said. And it wasn’t just the recovery. It was the threat of tropical systems and the threat to the thousands of people out in the Gulf of Mexico due to the recovery who wouldn’t normally be there.

Back to 2020 and the hurricane season approaching fast, critical outreach with emergency management partners was being performed, only this time virtually. Skype, Google Meet, Go-To-Meeting, and Facebook Live all became part of the outreach plan. Graham knew these first responders were going through so much with the pandemic, and he wasn’t going to let them down when it came to the hurricane season. He also provided more than 100 pre-season virtual interviews with the media, who are critical partners in getting the preparedness messages out to the public.

As the 2020 hurricane season unfolded, with storm and after storm moving over the tropical waters and aiming at the U.S., a new challenge arose. Normally, when hurricane evacuations are issued, residents are asked to leave their home. But during the pandemic, they’re asked to stay home. Graham had to thread that needle for several U.S. landfalling hurricanes, including Hurricane Laura.

In August, NHC was forecasting that the Category 4 hurricane would make landfall over coastal western Louisiana with a 15-to-20-foot storm surge. In response, Graham told Louisiana officials that the storm was “not survivable.” That messaging led to a 100 percent evacuation compliance, a statistic based on the number of calls for help in zones that were issued evacuation orders in the hurricane’s hardest hit area. There is no doubt that decision saved lives. In all of 2020, there were two fatalities directly related to storm surge compared to 41 fatalities from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy alone.

Graham admits he still feels the effects of the 2020 season. But every presentation he gives during the 2021 preseason gets him one step closer. “I think the more we can talk about the mission, the better. My view is, it’s all about the mission of protecting lives and property. I’m excited to participate in all these pre-season activities, because I know we are helping people get ready for whatever the next hurricane season might bring.” Graham was instrumental in keeping the NHC staff and facility safe, and keeping the public safe, too. Despite the pandemic and the record season, NHC has never been stronger.