Louisiana’s Barry Keim talks Hurricane Katrina and life as state climatologist

This is the latest in a series of interviews with state climatologists about their day-to-day responsibilities, research projects, and, of course, any relevant weather which their state has experienced. My third interviewee is Dr. Barry Keim, the state climatologist for Louisiana, who works at Louisiana State University. – Adam Rainear (CWG summer intern)

Radar view of Katrina as it made landfall in Louisiana, August 29, 2005. (NWS)

Radar view of Katrina as it made landfall in Louisiana, August 29, 2005. (NWS)

Q. Eight years ago today, Hurricane Katrina devastated your state. How much of the area still hasn’t recovered from Katrina, and how much of it may never recover? 

A: Baton Rouge handled both of those storms (Katrina and Rita) just fine.  We had some minor damage here and there, but we didn’t get flooded and the winds weren’t so bad.

New Orleans, on the other hand, and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi: that area got hammered by the storm surge in particular, and also some really bad winds.  I come from a town called Chalmette, right on the east side of St. Bernard Parish, just to the east side of New Orleans.  The eye actually passed over the east side of the parish, and the surge in some areas was over 20 feet.  A significant portion of the city was under water, but there has been some remarkable recovery.

Other parts look like they have been barely touched.  Those parts are becoming few and far between, but, hell, we’re 8 years since the storm and we still have areas which look like they haven’t been touched.  There are major parts of the city where people just haven’t returned.

[In] the Lower 9th Ward, which did a nice job of cleaning up, people just haven’t returned.  It’s just incredible driving around the old neighborhoods.  The place looks a lot different…

Q: Since we’re in the “heat” of hurricane season, what is preparation like if a storm were to be barreling through the Gulf towards the Louisiana coast? 

A: In the past, we used to work very closely with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOSEP).  From about 1992 to 2008, the State Climate Office used to deploy down to GOSEP and actually be part of the process… [We'd] give briefings to all of the constituents there…

But, they reshaped the whole GOSEP.  The process started after Katrina and Rita in 2005.  We were still a part of the process in 2008 when the regions were hit by Gustav and Ike. But, since then, they’ve had a lot of turnover, and, as a result, we’re no longer part of that process.  The Weather Service is sort of covering our role now.

Now, I would argue, I’m mostly relegated to coping with the media.

Q: You’ve been the Louisiana State Climatologist since 2003.  What do your day-to-day activities consist of?

 A: Well it varies a lot from day-to-day.

Every Monday, I come in and write a weekly report of everything that transpired from the previous Monday until Sunday.  I do that all the time.

Every Friday, for the last year and a half or so, I write a news column for a newspaper in my home county (parish).  It basically takes on all sorts of topics.  If something is going on I’ll write about that…  If there’s nothing going on, I’ll just pick some topic like: why are we in hurricane season right now?  Aside from that, I do some routine data requests, and I do media work [also].  Media takes up a lot of my time, and I do upwards of 200 media interviews per year.

Q: You’re also a professor at LSU.  Which part do you enjoy more, climatologist or professor?

A: I like [them] both.  I think it places me in a unique position to be both.  It just diversifies my day, and I can dabble a little over here and a little over there.  Variety is the spice of life, and I have as much variety as I can wrap my hands around.  Because of that, I think it’s fantastic, and I really do enjoy both aspects of the job.

I love mentoring my graduate students as a professor, but I also love helping that fifth grader with a social studies project.  I know a lot of people don’t like that kind of stuff, but I really do enjoy it.  We’re training the next set of scientists, and I see that as an important mission of the state climate office.

Q: What are some of your ongoing research projects?

A: As I’ve advanced through my career, I find myself getting saddled with more administration type things.  So, my research has suffered from the point of things where I’m driving.  But, I get to live vicariously through my students, and that’s fantastic.

Right now I have six active students working on a whole variety of projects.  The most prominent one would be Hal Needham.  He is working on storm surge, and he has established himself as the go-to guy for storm surge [empirical] data.  We collectively built a global storm surge database which we call SurgeDat.

Some of the other projects:

I have a Masters student named Amanda Billiot who is doing a synoptic climatology for Louisiana.  …

I also have a Ph.D. student working on an analysis of extreme events across the southeast.  She’s looking at 27 different variables of extremes across the Southeast, and it’s almost equally divided among temperature parameters and precipitation parameters.

Another [PhD] student is working on the Gulf of Mexico sea surface temperatures and how that effects the coastal climate.

Another Masters student is working on dew point climatology and if dew points have increased over time.

I’ve got my hands in all of these things, that’s about all I can handle [chuckles].

Q: You were previously the New Hampshire State Climatologist.  What caused the change, and what are some of the differences between the two positions?

A: I did my Masters and Ph.D. here at LSU, and my first academic job was New Hampshire.  One of the things that attracted me to that position was that I could be state climatologist, working so much at the state climate office here at LSU all those years as a graduate student.  When I got up there, it was an adventure, and a tremendous learning experience.

Over time, the winters really wore me out, to be perfectly honest.  When I got a chance to come back to Louisiana, I was all over that.  I packed up the family and headed back to LSU.  I didn’t move right into the State Climate Office, then the very next year, the state climatologist went full-time TV, and I slid into the position.

Barry Keim

Barry Keim

Q: Outside of the office, what are the day to day activities during your free time?

A: I am an avid exercise enthusiast.  I work out every day doing something.  Sometimes I play basketball, I lift weights, I run, ride my bike, occasionally I’ll swim.  So, that’s been a real passion to me through the years.  And of course, playing with my children, [and] raising my family.  So if you want to call that my free-time, okay, I’m fine with that.  I’m also very active in my church.

Dr. Bary Keim has been the Louisiana State Climatologist since 2003.  He was previously the New Hampshire State Climatologist from 1994 until 2002.  He earned his Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. all from LSU, and he has also worked in the Southern Regional Climate Center. 

Related:

Ask a state climatologist: Q & A with Texas’ John Nielsen-Gammon

Ask a state climatologist: Q & A with New Jersey’s David Robinson

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