A Conversation With Chief Of Hurricane Center

David Greene talks to Rick Knabb, the newly named head of the National Hurricane Center. Knabb is currently the Weather Channel's resident hurricane expert. When he previously worked at the National Hurricane Center as a meteorologist, he was one of the lead forecasters for Hurricane Katrina.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Hurricane season begins this week, and if you live in one of the states affected by tropical weather, you're probably very familiar with this voice...

DR. RICK KNABB: What will the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season be like? A question I've heard a lot since the 2011 season ended.

GREENE: Dr. Rick Knabb is the Weather Channel's hurricane expert. Next week, he's becoming everybody's hurricane expert, when he takes over as director of the National Hurricane Center. We reached him at the Weather Channel's headquarters in Atlanta.

CONRAD ANKER: Dr. Knabb, congratulations on the new appointment and thanks for talking to us.

KNABB: Oh, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to talk with you today. And it's an interesting time for me and really focusing on getting people prepared for the hurricane.

GREENE: Well, interesting time for that reason, and also because I understand this is fulfilling a childhood dream, to become National Hurricane Center director. What was going on in your life when you were a kid and why was that such a goal?

KNABB: I moved down to southern Florida when I was three years old. And not too long after that, in 1979, I very vividly remember Hurricane David approaching the Fort Lauderdale, Miami area. I was scared. We were huddled in the interior room of our house. And I was watching the director of the Hurricane Center at the time briefing everyone, via local television.

We fortunately escaped damage from that hurricane. But I, for lack of a better word, caught the bug and wanted to know what makes hurricanes tick. And I never remember looking back.

GREENE: I'm going to ask you the Weather Channel geek question since I'm such a Weather Channel fan. I mean, as a scientist, as you're, you know, crunching the numbers and looking at hurricanes. Then you have, sort of, the entertainment value of television, the Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel out there, you know, is blowing in the wind and doing the reports. Did you sometimes, sort of, laugh at the entertainment side of things?

KNABB: Oh, sure. And sometimes that's the intended response because you have to get to know your audience. Because if I only show up on television a couple of days before a hurricane hits, then people wonder, well, who's this guy - do I trust him. But because you're on television everyday, or at least frequently, they get to know that you're real, you're human, you have a sense of humor, just like they do.

Then when a storm is on our doorstep, they're going to trust you. They know you. They're going to listen to you. So it's really all part of engaging the audience and interacting as humans, between one another, not just people giving information.

GREENE: Speaking of a storm on our doorstep, an incredibly serious storm, Hurricane Katrina, you were at the hurricane center at that point. In fact, as I understand it, you were the hurricane specialist who forecast that Katrina was going to become a major hurricane. And I guess I'm wondering if the moment still stays with you, if you remember looking at the data and realizing what a monster Katrina was about to become?

KNABB: Well, in terms of the forecast, before Katrina became a major hurricane there were several of us who were concerned that that was going to be the case, and explicitly forecast that to happen. What happened to me was that it went to Category 5 while I was on the overnight shift and we knew that something bad was going to happen.

But we, you know, we kept focused on giving as much information, in a timely fashion, as accurately as possible - for the benefit of people to get out of harm's way as much as could be done. And we lost a lot of people in Katrina and that still haunts me. It's frustrating, as a forecaster, to know that no matter how good your forecast information is that damage is still going to happen.

Obviously we lost way too many people in Katrina. Hopefully it never happens like that, on that scale, again.

GREENE: Dr. Knabb, you're becoming director of the National Hurricane Center, Max Mayfield was the director when you were at the center, previously. And he said many times that his nightmare scenario was a big hurricane in the Gulf that would flood New Orleans. I mean, you know, exactly what Katrina ended up doing. Do you have your own hurricane nightmare?

KNABB: Well, first, yes. We, for many years, were saying that New Orleans was extremely vulnerable and so we were not shocked that a Category 3, the size of Katrina, could do what it did to New Orleans. There are many other places that have not been hit by a hurricane in a long time that I worry about. I mean, everybody from Brownsville to Maine, and all the Caribbean Islands, are vulnerable.

But I worry about places like Tampa Bay, Florida, the Florida Keys, Savannah, Georgia, the New Jersey coastline - places that haven't been hit by a devastating hurricane in a long time. All these places are incredibly vulnerable and would be a really, really bad situation if a major hurricane hit. And it's really a matter of when, not if.

GREENE: Dr. Knabb, thanks so much for talking to us.

KNABB: You're welcome, thank you.

GREENE: For another week, Dr. Rick Knabb is the hurricane specialist at the Weather Channel. Next Monday, he starts his new job at the National Hurricane Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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