INTERVIEW: John J. Kelly Jr., NOAA's chief weather watcher

Better computers touch down at NWS

John J. Kelly Jr.

Retired Brig. Gen. John J. Kelly Jr. in 1998 became the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's assistant administrator for weather services and director of the National Weather Service.

Kelly brought to the job 33 years of experience in the weather field, including 15 years of executive-level jobs in both government and industry.

Prior to his current post, Kelly was a senior adviser on weather services for the Commerce Department, where he conducted a bottom-up review of NWS operations as well as NOAA and NWS management, planning and budget policies.

In the private sector, Kelly was director of weather systems for GTE Information Systems from 1994 to 1996, and responsible for its $30 million-a-year weather and aviation services business.

Kelly retired from the Air Force in 1994 after 31 years of service. His military career spanned worldwide assignments ranging from operational forecaster and chief scientist to staff officer. He retired as commander of the Air Weather Service, a 5,000-person global weather and space support organization with an annual budget of $500 million.

Kelly received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Seton Hall University. He did graduate work in meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and has a master's in public administration from Auburn University in Alabama. He also completed leadership programs at the Air Force Command and Staff College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

GCN associate editor Dipka Bhambhani interviewed Kelly at his office in Silver Spring, Md.

GCN: How did you happen to launch Hurricane Awareness Week?

KELLY: The American Red Cross last year did a poll and discovered that only about 41 percent of those who live in hurricane-prone areas have thought about how they would evacuate. Only 30 percent have a disaster supply kit in their home.

Federal Emergency Management Agency surveys have shown that somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of the people who live in hurricane-prone areas have never experienced a major hurricane. And on top of that, about 48 million people live within 50 miles of the Gulf Coast or the Atlantic coast. We've got to educate them, because the time to get ready for a hurricane is not when we put out a warning, but when it's calm and peaceful.

We talked with the state of Florida emergency management community and they said, 'Why don't we try to have a hurricane awareness week?' We said, 'Why don't we try to coordinate an effort?' So we came up with Hurricane Awareness Week from May 21 to 25 [GCN, May 7, Page 17].

The population of the coastal areas is expected to double by 2010. The highway infrastructure is going to get stressed by evacuations. There were tremendous traffic jams during Hurricane Floyd, and we've gotten smarter from that. FEMA and emergency managers have created traffic teams to figure out how to move people out.

We have a saying in the weather business: 'Hide from the wind; get out of the way of the water.'

In 1900, a hurricane came into Galveston, Texas, and essentially destroyed the city. There are other at-risk coastal cities: You've got Houston, Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Miami, Wilmington, Long Island and New York. And there are areas that have more occurrences, Florida and the Gulf Coast. The most prone is Key West.

GCN: How does the weather service use technology to predict hurricane patterns?

KELLY: The basic process hasn't changed. First, you have to sort out what's happening. We have geostationary satellites and polar-orbiting satellites. Geostationary ones are constantly tracking what's going on over the Atlantic.

We have instrumented aircraft: WC-130s, P3s and Gulfstreams. The P3s and the WC-130s penetrate hurricanes; the Gulfstreams fly around the periphery.

The airplane gets into the storm and deploys a device called a dropwindsonde that has a parachute. It measures temperature, dew point and pressure as it goes down so we understand the physics of the storm.


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  • GCN: How much has prediction accuracy improved?

    KELLY: The errors have dropped significantly because we have better computers. The top-performance computer we're using now is an IBM RS/5000 SP. We went from a vector architecture to a massively parallel architecture.

    This year for the first time we will operationally use a model that includes sea surface temperatures coupled with atmospheric temperatures.

    We think this year we're going to see our first big improvement in intensity forecasts. Most of the improvement to date has been in tracking forecasts. This year we have a much better model. NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in partnership with the University of Rhode Island developed coupled atmosphere and ocean hurricane models that we will use at the National Hurricane Center.

    GCN: What has been the most significant development in weather prediction since you've been in the business?

    KELLY: In the 1960s, we didn't forecast tornadoes. The first warning of a tornado was when we saw it touch down. Now, we can forecast with about 11 minutes of lead time. Last year, it was 10 or 10 and a half minutes.

    Our three-day forecast today is as good as our one-day forecast 20 years ago. Our five-day forecast today is as good as the three-day forecast 20 years ago. So we really do have skill in large measure to better observe the atmosphere, and the computers are fast enough and have enough memory to let us run good models.

    GCN: What would you consider to be the most significant development in weather prediction ever?

    KELLY: Some would say the development of chaos theory by Edward Lorenz, an atmospheric physicist. That helped us better understand what was going on in the atmosphere. Other people say we wouldn't be where we are without high-performance computers. Some others would say that it's the ability to see what's going on in the atmosphere.

    Forecasting weather is complex. You can't do it unless you know what's happened and unless you have good models that simulate what it's going to do.

    GCN: Do you talk about the weather all the time?

    KELLY: It surprises a lot of people. They'll ask me what the weather is, and I tell them: 'Call up the forecast office.'

    I learned early that you play to your strength, and my strength isn't forecasting the weather. My strengths are leadership and management. I can forecast the weather, but it's been a while. Rarely do I talk about the weather casually.

    You get instant feedback as to whether you're right or wrong about the weather. There are not a lot of jobs where you get instant feedback. You come in the next day and take a look at what we said. Is what happened close to what we said or not and, if not, why not? When we miss things, we take it pretty seriously.

    GCN: Despite all the new technology, why is the weather sometimes completely opposite of what the weather service predicted?

    KELLY: Sometimes what happens is beyond what we can control. Sometimes what we say gets misinterpreted. Sometimes we're injudicious in terminology. But we do take seriously all the errors and try to learn from them.

    We have to do a better job of communicating to everyone. Forecasting the weather is not exact.

    GCN: Can you think of any instances of forecasting where you felt as if no existing technology could have predicted the outcome correctly?

    KELLY: Yes. Once when Islip on Long Island got a foot of snow, New York City got a couple of inches of snow. There's probably less than 50 miles difference.

    In some cases we're talking about a weather system that is 1,000 miles in horizontal extent, and we're trying to peg the rain, the snow, the heavy snow and the light snow line. The prediction is probably 100 miles across. That's where we're trying to come in.

    Out of that 1,000-mile storm, where is that 100-mile line going to fall? We don't always get it exactly right.

    GCN: What do you do as director of the National Weather Service, and how did you get the job?

    KELLY: I manage one of the world's largest weather organizations. We've got people in 150 offices around the country. We issue forecasts and weather warnings. I got the current job because the previous Commerce secretary asked if I'd consider applying when the organization had some management and leadership problems.

    We are a big user of information technology, communications and computers. We have some of the top high-performance computers in the world. What makes this job interesting is this blend of information technology and meteorology.


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