The 2020 hurricane season presented weather forecasters and emergency managers with unprecedented challenges: 30 named storms in the Atlantic Ocean, a record-breaking 11 U.S. landfalls that threatened coastlines from Texas to Maine as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a pandemic that forced the National Hurricane Center to operate remotely for the first time in its 56-year history.
Kenneth Graham, the center’s director, steered the nation through these historic challenges, saving countless lives through a coordinated response to the most active hurricane season on record and making critical decisions that helped ensure a high evacuation rate during Hurricane Laura, one of the most dangerous storms in U.S. history.
“In any year, shepherding the National Hurricane Center through a season of this magnitude would have been a daunting task,” said Jamie Rhome, storm surge specialist at the hurricane center and a 2019 Service to America Medal recipient. “But amid a global pandemic that challenged so many normal procedures and processes for forecasting and warning, this became a truly Herculean accomplishment.”
Directing the nation’s hurricane response as COVID-19 ravaged the country was no easy task. Mandatory travel restrictions made evacuations challenging, hospital patients could not be moved easily and a coronavirus outbreak among the center’s 46-person staff would have crippled the nation’s ability to respond to a historically severe hurricane season.
Graham overcame these challenges by providing local and federal emergency managers with round-the-clock advice and support. “Ken’s what I call the people’s director. He has an approachability and a likability that I’ve never seen in a director before,” Rhome said.
In August 2020, forecasters predicted that Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm headed for Louisiana, would create a 15- to 20-foot storm surge and cause severe flooding. In response, Graham told Louisiana officials that the storm was “not survivable.” The urgent warning led to 100% compliance with evacuation orders— a statistic based on the number of calls for help in zones that were issued these orders—in the hurricane’s hardest-hit area.
When Hurricane Isaias hit North Carolina earlier that same month, Graham’s warnings helped local and state officials safely evacuate the state’s beach communities. Later, Graham provided Central American emergency managers with forecasts to help the region prepare for the devasting one-two punch of Hurricanes Eta and Iota in Nicaragua.
Through it all, Graham translated complex weather data for local officials and the public with clarity and ease. “It’s not just his technical expertise, but his ability to convey information to the public in a calm, matter-of-fact way that instills confidence,” said Neil Jacobs, former acting administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Hurricane Center.
During Hurricane Laura, he conducted round-the-clock media interviews to inform the public about the storm. He worked closely with social scientists to help the center communicate to the public and federal officials more effectively—a critical goal in an age when people can easily access and misinterpret important weather data online.
At times, this type of communication has helped with critical hurricane response decisions. In 2019, for instance, Graham used it to convince skeptical officials in Washington that Hurricane Dorian would spin up the Atlantic Coast rather than cut through Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico as some models predicted. This prevented roughly 3 million people from unnecessarily evacuating their homes.
“His information is connected to the full breadth of the U.S. government to make sure that it protects property, and it protects lives,” said Pete Gaynor, the former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The fact that all this work continued unabated during a global pandemic speaks volumes about Graham’s leadership. In early March, before most agencies had devised long-term workforce plans to deal with COVID-19, Graham designed and implemented a detailed plan that mandated remote work, new shift schedules, temperature checks and personal protective equipment for staff as well as new cleaning procedures and traffic flow rules for the office.
Graham also deployed one employee to a National Weather Service facility in College Park, Maryland, in case COVID-19 shut down the hurricane center. All told, Graham organized roughly 200 meetings to develop—and walk staff through—these operational changes.
Throughout, Graham’s empathy and listening skills enabled his staff to overcome mental burnout during an exceptionally challenging hurricane season.
“They open up and talk to him about whatever problems they’re going through. We never would have made it through the season without him,” Rhome said.
By building trusted relationships—with his staff and with local, state and federal emergency managers—Graham shepherded the country through its worst hurricane season on record, amid a global pandemic.
“My whole premise, from day one, was about converting science into something that’s actionable and doing public service. It hasn’t changed to this day,” Graham said.