Volume 5 Number 2

August 1999

Interview to Jerry D. Jarrell, Director of the National Hurricane Center of the United States.

By Omar García Concepción

It is a very high honor for the Cuban Meteorological Society to interview in it’s Bulletin, before his announced retirement Jerry D. Jarrell, Director of the National Hurricane Center of the United States.
Jerry Jarrell is widely known and respected both in his country and abroad by the meteorological community and quite particularly by the emergency managers and hurricane forecasters.
His expertise, dedication and devotion to the public service have been very important in the mission of saving life and property.

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The picture shows Jerry Jarrel accompanied by Cuban Meteorologist Miriam T. Llanes during a workshop held at the "National Hurricane Center".

B.S.M.C - Could you start by telling our readers a few words about your birthplace and date, your parents and your school days?

J.J. - I was born during the Great Depression of the mid 1930s in West Virginia, a fairly poor rural mountain area about 300 miles west of Washington DC. My father was a coal miner who only completed elementary school, and my mother was a college graduate who was also my teacher for five of my first six years of school. Despite the lack of education, my father was highly respected in the community as a man of great wisdom whose advice was sought after by the neighbors. I was an above average student, frequently in trouble as a practical joker and class clown.

B.S.M.C - How did you initiate in Meteorology?

J.J. - I had no interest in Meteorology. There is no college in West Virginia that offered any curriculum in Meteorology, so even if I had been interested, we couldn't have afforded me going out-of-state for an education. Rather I set out to be an engineer, but I had so much trouble with the math courses, that I decided to take the easier route and become a teacher. However, even to be a teacher my math grades were a problem, so I had to retake many of the courses, getting good grades the second time around, and I finally grasped most of the subject matter. I have often viewed this repeating courses as one of my smarter moves, although it was hard to swallow at the time. After graduation, I started teaching, but was soon drafted for the Korean War, and went into the U. S. Navy's Officer Candidate School. One day at an assembly, they asked who had taken Calculus in college. I raised my hand, and with that simple act, had volunteered to go to graduate school in Meteorology.

B.S.M.C - A great part of your professional life has been linked to tropical weather forecasting, serving in the U.S. navy since 1957 until 1977 and at the NHC since 1988 until now, but for a stage (1977 – 1988) you were Senior Research Scientist at the Science Application International Corporation (SAIC). What memories you recall of that stage as researcher?

J.J. - All of my professional life has been working for the government at one level or another except for the eleven years I worked for SAIC. That period was unique, to say the least. One of the great shocks was that if you wanted to buy something, and if you had the money, you just did it. No filling out forms, if you thought the purchase would help you do the job, that was good enough for the company. SAIC is owned by the employees, so everyone had an interest in making the company profitable. On the down side, we were responsible for selling our ideas to customers. Selling is not something most of us career government workers are very comfortable with, and I never felt like I was very good at it. We had sharp people, so good ideas sell well, even if the salesman is not very good. I view the time as very well spent, many lessons were learned, and I gained a new respect for the private enterprise worker who pays taxes to support us government workers.

B.S.M.C - Looking retrospectively into your career, Could you point some meteorological event that had affected you personally?

J.J. - No Hurricane can ever affect anyone as much as Andrew did me and my family short of killing us. Our home was severely damaged, costing about half it's value to repair. We were in the heart of the heavy damage area, and few of our neighbors were able to continue to live in their damaged homes. While this incident will be with me forever, the hurricane that causes me the most soul-searching is Mitch of 1998. We saw the disaster developing, and felt helpless to do anything to stop it. Even today, it is hard to see what we could have done differently, save perfect hindsight, to prevent the catastrophe that occurred in Honduras and Nicaragua.

B.S.M.C - How did you feel after been appointed director of the NHC?

J.J. - That was a relief. I had wanted to be director for a long while, and had finally made it, but on the other hand, I had made it only because a good friend had become desperately ill, so it was clearly mixed emotions.

B.S.M.C - You have participated in many working groups and committees, both national and internationals. What subjects, among the many dealt with have been especially important to you?

J.J. - I have participated in several working groups and committees. The committee that re-organized the US National Meteorological Center into nine service centers was important, although not thoroughly satisfying. An ad hoc committee to develop a plan for US tropical cyclone research was probably the most important I have served on within the country in terms of potential impact, although actual impact will have to be measured later. The RA-IV Hurricane Committee is clearly the most important internationally, not only from an operations point-of-view, but more importantly for interpersonal relationships between operational people from member countries. I served on the standing committee to organize the International Workshops on Tropical Cyclones, and have felt that these meetings served a very important purpose in information exchange both country-to-country and forecaster-to-researcher and vice-versa.

B.S.M.C - Is there any subject you’d like to have worked deeper into but never had the opportunity to do so?

J.J. - I have a lot of ideas that I have never got around to pursuing. One of those is how to assign a monetary value to what we do. All of us are in competition with other government agencies for resources. It would make our case much stronger if we could state with some certainty that we save a significant number of lives or amount of property damage per year.

B.S.M.C - Technology has opened many new possibilities in data collection and knowledge of the physical processes of the tropical cyclones. How will these advances influence future forecasting of TC’s? Will future forecasters be different from today’s?

J.J. - Every time we get more information we get new questions. Today, it seems like the greatest shortcoming is in the area of data assimilation by the models. These problems are not insolvable, but they are troubling. While we are working on assimilation, we need to work on the science of sampling. Are we sampling the atmosphere where and as often as we need to? There are almost unlimited improvements we might be able to make in the economy of observations and at the same time in the effectiveness of our observations by optimizing the process. We are trying to improve the process of data collection for track forecasting, but the largest shortfalls in terms of variance unexplained are in the areas of intensity and storm size forecasting. In the near term we have to make progress on those problems in the lab, and then data collection will have to support application of the research solutions in the field.

B.S.M.C - In a few words, could you describe the current state of TC’s forecasting?

J.J. - Track forecasting is good and progressing. Intensity and size forecasting has hardly progressed in 30 years. We are beginning to amass some data sets that will let the research community attack these problems, but we are a long way from solutions.

B.S.M.C - Do you think that the public in general has an adequate level of knowledge regarding how to deal with a TC?

J.J. - No. Every time I take public questions, I get the feeling that there is a lot of folklore out there. When I communicate with the public, I am careful to use simple words and phrases, but still after I speak, the questions reveal that it is difficult to communicate the concepts we deal with. More and better use of pictures, cartoons, and graphics may be a partial solution, but not everyone has Internet, and not everyone gets their news over TV, so we need to be creative, and ever vigilant in how we say things.

B.S.M.C - One last question. What advice would you give to young people wishing to dedicate professionally to hurricane forecasting?

J.J. - Get a good education. This business is as much human behavior and leadership as it is meteorology. So if you set your goals on one of these jobs, then begin early by paying attention to communicating with the public. Don't avoid humanities type course work, but on the other hand, you must at least be conversant with the technical problems of the day. Communications involves both writing and speaking. Take and take seriously those courses in writing and public speaking. In the final analysis, your ability to clearly present your ideas will prove to be as important as the ideas themselves. In summary, you need to be an excellent communicator, but you also must know what you are talking about.

Copyright © 1998, 1999 Cuban Meteorological Society
Last modified: August 06, 1999

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