A seasoned federal forecaster takes over the National Weather Service

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This guest has what might be one of the most consequential federal jobs of all. No, not cabinet secretary or tax commissioner. He’s the new director of the National Weather Service, and he came up through the ranks as a meteorologist and forecaster. Kenneth Graham joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss his path to this...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

This guest has what might be one of the most consequential federal jobs of all. No, not cabinet secretary or tax commissioner. He’s the new director of the National Weather Service, and he came up through the ranks as a meteorologist and forecaster. Kenneth Graham joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss his path to this new role.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: When we last had you want, gosh, almost four years ago, you had just become the director of the National Hurricane Center. Did you ever dream you’d be in running the whole kahuna weather wise?

Ken Graham: You know, it’s interesting. It seems like along the way, I always saw myself in the position I was in and never really thought about the next one. And we were talking before we went on air, it’s still soaking in right as like, oh, yes. I’m the director of the National Weather Service. I think it’s still soaking in for me.

Tom Temin: So what are your initial plans? And well, first of all, what’s your initial feeling about looking at the agency? Is it in pretty good shape? Do you have some areas you’d like to focus on?

Ken Graham: Yeah, the place that I want to focus, talk to the workforce, we’ve done some all hands. And it really is our people, our infrastructure and our future. It’s simple, it’s easy to remember. And the first part is people. It’s everything. I mean, we’ve been through so many events, you think about hurricanes running out of names, two years in a row, you think about the wildfires, the amount of tornadoes and floods, I mean, all of that during a pandemic. So really, it is, it’s really taking care of the workforce. And Tom, my initial impressions, it’s always been like this, I’m just humbled by this workforce. They’re so dedicated, you know, 24 hours a day, keeping an eye on the radar, keeping an eye on the weather, getting that information to decision makers. I’m just humbled by the dedication. So it’s real simple. If I can take care of them in this position, they’re going to take care of the mission.

The infrastructure, that’s the next part, we got to make sure we’re solid. I mean, you look at how we get warnings out, people are counting on those, we’ve got to make sure the infrastructures are really solid. So that’s another one. And where are we going? You know, you look at the future, and you look at the next pieces of equipment, the next generation warnings and the next generation meteorologists, hydrologist, engineer, that’s a part of it, too. So that’s the three of them. And it really gets me pretty excited to think about it.

Tom Temin: And the computing facilities, there’s always new algorithms, there’s new weather challenge forecasts to be solved. To get that accuracy another 12 hours out. I imagine that’s a big concern also keeping up with the latest in the algorithms and the computing power.

Ken Graham: Yeah, the computing power, we just debuted the new supercomputer, super excited about that. It’s really looking at the ability to not just look at the forecast, but extended at time. But the other part, if this is a big one, looking into the future is really getting into probabilistic. I mean, if you think about one forecast is fine. But what if things move 20 or 30 miles? It can happen. So we have to find ways to be able to do what we do in a probabilistic fashion to put some science behind a common question, Tom, everybody always asks, what is the worst case scenario? Hey, Ken, what’s really going to happen? So let’s put some science behind that and really look at the probabilistic forecast. If it moves 20 miles, we want to make sure we account for that.

Tom Temin: And what at the National Hurricane Center, which is, in some sense, looking at the most extreme types of weather that the Weather Service itself looks at, because calm, sunny, breezy, days are great, but hurricanes are what we really worry about. What prepared you from hurricane knowledge to this job, do you think?

Ken Graham: It is interesting, another interview that I did ask the same question and it was interesting the answer because I had to go back further. I went back to the meteorologists in charge at the New Orleans office. I think about the hurricanes, the floods, the winter weather tornadoes, Deepwater Horizon, I think about how busy an office that was, and how that prepared me for the NHC director. And it was interesting getting to the hurricane center and say, what prepared you for this event? Well, I was at a busy forecast office in New Orleans, and it helped me out. And if you think about the global perspective of the National Hurricane Center, 28 countries that was new for me, I didn’t have to just look at a smaller area, I had 28 countries we forecast for international responsibility, busy as can be. And it’s interesting how each one of those positions gets you’re ready for the next one. So here, it’s not just hurricanes, it’s all hazards and across the country. But I think each one of those experiences gives me a perspective to hit the ground running with this job.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Kenneth Graham, he’s the newly named director of the National Weather Service. And by the way, did Louis Uccellini leave an envelope in the desk for you?

Ken Graham: It was wonderful. He sent me a message. And it was a wonderful email about his experience. And we’re already talking about when we can have coffee or breakfast together and just talk about the experience. I mean, it’s just vast, and you put such a passionate workforce like we have in the Weather Service, just putting some focus to that putting some vision to that we really come together as an agency as a family, you can’t go through all those disasters without becoming family. And that’s just a unique position. It’s an exciting position to tie that together and go forward.

Tom Temin: And how much does the National Weather Service collaborate with the military branches that have their own oceanographic and meteorological facilities and forecasting facilities? They do a lot of replicative of work, perhaps. And how does that all tie in together?

Ken Graham: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s a great relationship. I mean, I think about the Navy think about NAVO and thinking about their mission and taking some of our guidance and really then be able to narrow it down for their mission. I think in the Air Force. We know we work so close with them, especially with In the previous job with the Hurricane Hunters as part of the Air Force and doing those briefings, we do some decision support associated with the Navy. At the Hurricane Center, we actually had a Navy employee there that did a lot of those briefings. So it’s incredible relationship with the different military branches, and one that I did want to highlight is there’s a special relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard, and we do their decision support briefings, I look back at big events, hurricanes, floods, and how what a close relationship that we have with our U.S. Coast Guard partners, and doing their decision support in the big event. So it’s just an incredible relationship, we work well together. And we tie our missions together. And it’s less duplicative that people think actually, we really complement each other in the heat of the battle.

Tom Temin: And I want to talk about another trend, speaking of the future, and this is something parallel has happened with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. And that is a rise in the number of sensors, the development of algorithms and the observations that are done by the private sector, simply not using the federal government as the only original source of weather, atmospheric, oceanographic data and so forth. What do you expect there? And how could that affect the National Weather Service as we move into the future?

Ken Graham: Yeah, it’s interesting to really back up and look at the importance of observations and you go into any forecast office, you talk to any operational meteorologists and say, Hey, what do you need to do? If I could get you something what do you need? Almost invariably, they’ll come back and say, data, I want more data, I want information. And you know, we see the value of that data, both in time and space. Because you know, back on hurricanes, it’s interesting, the Hurricane Hunter data, getting into the models made the track 10 to 15%, better, the intensity 15 to 20%, better, data is everything. So I think there’s opportunity there to get the data to work together, collecting that data and getting that model data. Basically, the accuracy of the models could depend on what goes in what goes in health, what goes out. So I think there’s opportunity there that yet to be explored. So I’m excited about exploring that.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned, too, that you were the weather chief in New Orleans, and weather people are often on the job physically, how has telework in the pandemic affected the National Weather Service? And what’s the situation now with respect to where people are doing their work?

Ken Graham: Yeah, it’s interesting, there was a variability of that. I mean, you look at the forecast offices across the country, 122 of them were forecast centers, for the most part, they were on duty, the whole time they were coming to the office. They sat further apart, right, there was some precautions associated with where they sat. And there was some workstations moved to the hallways, and some things like that that happened, the national centers are coming to work during the hurricanes. And if there was some opportunities to be able to work from home, we did. And I think the concern there was how busy the seasons have been, you got to keep people safe, you just have to find ways to keep people safe, you couldn’t lose them in the heat of the battle. So I think now we’re looking at return to work, a lot of folks coming back to work, and you still have some opportunities for telework. But I think one of the biggest changes is just the realization that we can use technology differently than we ever did before. We see collaboration calls on video, you did a conference call, we never did those videos with emergency managers, both in the United States and international as well. You’re seeing this whole new way to have meetings, we’re collaborating better than we ever have. I think that’s an interesting outcome associated with from the pandemic that I look back on and kind of reflect.

Tom Temin: And when you attend a backyard barbecue or some sort of social gathering, do people generally leave you alone professionally? Or does everyone always pester you about weather and weather forecasting?

Ken Graham: Tom, I can barely write the Metro without somebody asking me something about a weather question. Look, it’s awesome. You know, a lot of times I’m representing so I love wearing NOAA shirts, Weather Service shirts, people call me a banner for the agency, even when I travel and get on a plane and say, Hey, Weather Service, you’re NOAA and have a conversation. I just love this. I wanted to do this since I was six-years-old. So I mean, any conversation I could have about the weather. I’ll take anybody up on that.


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