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July-August 2009

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On the Job: Eric Blake, Hurricane Specialist


Eric Blake is a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami, Florida. He first wanted to become a meteorologist after the 1985 hurricane season, when he was a child living in New Orleans and Louisiana was pummeled by a series of hurricanes. Blake later went on to study atmospheric sciences at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Colorado State University. He has been working at the NHC since 2000 and is also the author of a forthcoming book, Tropical Cyclones of the Eastern North Pacific Basin,1949-2006.

National Hurricane Center?
I’m one of the hurricane forecasters here at the Hurricane Center, where we issue the five-day track and intensity forecast, along with hurricane watches and warnings for countries in the Eastern Pacific all the way to the Caribbean and Atlantic areas. Half the year we’re responsible for issuing the hurricane forecast; the other half of the year, we help people prepare for the next hurricane season. In a way, it’s like two jobs combined into one.

Do you work in teams or individually?
In the off-season, most of our work is individual. During the season, there’ll be one senior specialist and one specialist on a shift. If there are two storms developing at the same time, one of us takes one storm. If there’s one storm, we combine our efforts. It depends on how big the threat is. If it’s a significant threat then we always work as a team. There’s someone answering media calls, someone on radar, someone gathering data, someone making a forecast. 

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Can you tell me about the 3 branches of the National Hurricane Center?
There’s the Hurricane Specialist Unit, where all the hurricane forecasters are located. We kind of have our own specializations within the unit, but our tasks are pretty similar. Another branch that we have is the Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch. They’re responsible for issuing the marine forecasts for the Eastern Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean. They also issue estimates of the intensity of the tropical cyclone, and we use those in our hurricane forecasts. The third branch is the Technology and Science Branch—they’re kind of the glue that holds everything together around here. If there’s a problem, they fix it. They also maintain the Web site and make sure everything’s running smoothly.

How quickly can a hurricane form?
Hurricanes don’t form out of nothing. Usually [when a hurricane forms] we’ve been monitoring the area for a day or 2 already. But once they start to take shape, they can form very quickly. An example is Hurricane Humberto, which formed off the Texas coast in 2007. It was basically a tropical depression early in the morning, and by late in the evening, it was a hurricane. It does happen under a pretty special set of circumstances. There can be a hurricane within a day.

How long can a hurricane last?
There was a hurricane back in 1971—Ginger. It basically lasted for a month. Not as a hurricane all that time, but it certainly kept its identity for that long. There are certainly many occurrences of storms lasting 3 or 4 weeks, up to about a month.

How do you decide when it’s safe to fly into a storm?
First of all, the Hurricane Hunter crew makes the final decision on whether they can fly into the storm or not.  We usually decide on what systems are important to fly into.  The closer the system is to land, the more likely the Hurricane Hunters are to fly into it. We don’t fly into storms well over the middle of the ocean that are no threat to land. And we try to have planes in the area when we think a system has the potential to become a tropical cyclone. It’s a bit of an art and a science knowing when a system is going to become a tropical. A lot of times we’ll set up a plane for the next day, and the system falls apart. There are certain situations that are more dangerous than others, but, really, since I’ve worked here, I’ve never had them say the storm is too dangerous to fly into. Occasionally there are certain conditions. There could be hail—that is a hazard for a hurricane plane. But, you know, they go almost all of the time. It’s a lot safer being in the air than being on the ground in a hurricane.

Is there an area in hurricane awareness that you think the public should know more about?
I think it’s really important for people to develop their own hurricane plan and to have all the hurricane supplies that they need. Because if you’re really without power for 5 days, your fresh and frozen foods are going to be gone. And after that’s gone, you’re basically on canned food. And you need water as well. I think 1 problem is the public underestimates the potential impacts of a hurricane. If nothing else, the power going out for a week, that’s a major inconvenience.

How are hurricanes named?
Hurricanes have been named since about 1950. A lot of times you can have 3 hurricanes going on at once, and it’s easier to say “Hurricane Bob” as opposed to “the hurricane in the middle of the central Atlantic.” I think it was originally done to avoid confusing one storm with another, and it’s an easy way to keep track of something. The names originated from the World Meteorological Organization. Right now we have a 6 lists of names, 1 for each season, so every 6 years it repeats.

Have you ever been in a hurricane?
Hurricane Wilma in 2005 was a major hassle. We were without power for 5 days and had strong winds. Fortunately I didn’t have any damage, but the wind was amazing. What made me want to become a meteorologist was the 1985 season. Hurricane after hurricane came through or close to Louisiana. I can specifically remember Hurricane Juan, with all sorts of rain and wind in the New Orleans area. Back in those days, where the hurricane was going to be the next day could often be a big surprise.  We drove across Lake Pontchartrain while Juan was nearby, and I can remember the waves crashing against the bridge. It was a very scary experience, but always something I will remember.

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