On Jan. 10, 2008 in Caledonia, Miss., a powerful tornado with winds up to 155 mph exploded from the sky, ripping apart the town’s elementary school and hurling a school bus onto the roof of the gymnasium.
Luckily, there were no deaths at the school and only three reported injuries, because students and teachers had been given a 41-minute warning to prepare and find safety, the result of years of hard work by Joseph Schaefer, the recently retired director of the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Storm Prediction Center.
Throughout his 46-year government career, Schaefer enhanced the scientific knowledge of tornadoes and severe weather conditions, translating his findings into state-of-the-art advance forecast and warning systems that have saved the lives of countless Americans and prevented immeasurable property damage.
Thanks to his efforts, the storm center can now predict tornado conditions up to eight days in advance, an eight-fold increase over the past 20 years, and the National Weather Service issues tornado warnings with an average of 14 minutes lead time compared to the previous average of just four minutes. In some cases, such as in Caledonia, the lead time is much longer.
In 2008 alone, nearly 1,700 tornadoes raked the United States, making awareness and preparedness watchwords in the daily life of Americans living in the 17 states in the middle of the country known as Tornado Alley.
“Americans expect the government to provide life-saving information, and Joe has enabled the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Storm Prediction Center to do that over the course of his career,” said NOAA Deputy Under Secretary Mary Glackin.
The storm center, which falls under the jurisdiction of NOAA and operates with just a 35-person staff, forecasts tornados, wildfires, large hail storms, damaging wind conditions and thunderstorms, and provides roughly 1,000 severe weather warnings to the public each year.
“Every day I get briefed on threats to Americans and every day, because of Joe, this information gets communicated to emergency managers, firefighters and communities so that people are prepared,” said Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service.
Schaefer was instrumental in changing the storm center’s model to not just engage all weather service offices in forecasting and warnings, but also to ensure the important information reaches local forecasters and emergency officials in real time so the communities can respond to the threats and minimize deaths and damage.
“I was doing weather-related research for the Navy during the Vietnam era and I went to work for the severe storms lab to do forecasting research on tornadoes,” said Schaefer. “Something was lacking. I thought, gee, I’m doing this research, but why? Until you can get it to the public, you’re not going anywhere. I had a desire to get the research into practice and used by the forecasters for the public good.”
In the last several years, Schaefer also has led the storm center to use its sophisticated analysis of weather conditions to forecast the potential for significant wildfires as far as eight days in advance.
“Forest fire prediction wasn’t in his mission, but he said, ‘I have a capability to alert communities about this,’—and he did it,” said Hayes.
Schaefer began his career in 1963 as an intern at the National Weather Service and later worked as a research scientist. With his research successes, he became a recognized expert in forecasting the tricky atmospheric conditions that spawn severe weather.
“Joe’s personal drive for excellence is the reason the storm center has been so successful. He’s the epitome of going the extra mile,” said Russell Schneider, who is manager of the storm center’s science support branch.
For Schaefer, his lifetime body of work has been quite fulfilling. “Going back, I’d do it all over again,” said Schaefer. “Making something that’s of value to everyone, that is really a neat feeling.”