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Ken Graham named Weather Service head after leading Hurricane Center

Ken Graham -- who navigated the Hurricane Center through record-setting hurricane seasons and the weather controversy known as Sharpiegate -- was named director of the National Weather Service Tuesday.

Ken Graham. (National Hurricane Center)
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Ken Graham, who guided the National Hurricane Center through two record-breaking Atlantic hurricane seasons and the political storm known as Sharpiegate, will become the next director of the National Weather Service.

Graham, whose selection was announced Tuesday, takes the helm of the agency charged with forecasting the nation’s weather and how it can threaten Americans’ lives and property at a critical point. Climate change is intensifying heat waves, fires, droughts and storms, escalating the costs stemming from these extreme weather disasters. Last year, 20 separate billion-dollar weather disasters struck the Lower 48, the second most on record.

Rick Spinrad, who oversees the Weather Service as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, introduced Graham as director at a news briefing in Washington.

Spinrad described Graham as a man with “extraordinary experience,” “deep knowledge of atmospheric science,” “impressive communication skills” and a “calm demeanor” and as “someone who excels at collaborations and partnerships.”

“I have full confidence that he will help create a more weather- and climate-ready nation amid more extreme weather fueled by our changing climate,” Spinrad said.

Graham, a career official who has worked at the Weather Service for 28 years, said he was “humbled” and excited” to take on the role. He said his top priority is supporting the employees of the Weather Service who have worked long hours and rotating shifts through an exceptionally active period of extreme weather amid a pandemic.

“I’m driven by public service — people first,” Graham said. “We’ve got to ensure the well-being of our workforce.”

Graham takes over the agency at a particularly challenging time. The agency must predict increasingly extreme weather when its flagship weather prediction systems lag behind counterparts in Europe in computing power and accuracy, and some of its information technology systems for disseminating forecasts to the public are crumbling.

“We’ve got to look at the infrastructure and getting our systems healthy,” Graham said. “I’m going to own that. We’ve received some funds to go down that road, and we’re going to do that.”

NOAA has also faced questions about its workforce’s lack of gender and racial diversity. Graham, who is White, succeeds Louis Uccellini, who retired in December after heading the agency for nearly nine years.

Spinrad said that the agency is “not where we want it to be” on diversity issues but that “one of the reasons Ken is an attractive individual [for the post] is because of the job he’s done in addressing diversity.”

Graham said that over half of his hires have been from underrepresented groups and that he wants to build on that by actively seeking out more diverse candidates through college recruitment.

Graham also said he would place an emphasis on serving the needs of vulnerable communities with historically limited access to weather and preparedness information. “I really do commit to making our services more equitable,” he said. “Lifesaving messages have to get out there.”

Many in the weather community praised his selection.

“It is great to see a new director that has a wealth of experience in working with users firsthand to deliver lifesaving weather services,” said Mary Glackin, who served as deputy undersecretary at NOAA from 2007 to 2012, in an email. “And, Ken understands the impacts of our changing climate and how it manifests in more extreme weather events.”

Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, said Graham had worked to innovate at “the National Hurricane Center even through some of our country’s most challenging times.” The alliance named Graham as the 2022 National Weatherperson of the Year in February.

A stabilizing force: Outgoing Weather Service director reflects on tenure

The Hurricane Center improved storm track and intensity forecasts under Graham, even as every hurricane season since 2018 was busier than normal. The 2020 and 2021 seasons produced the most and third-most named storms on record, respectively.

Despite the onslaught, improved forecasts, warnings and communications tools developed at the Hurricane Center contributed to a large decrease in fatalities from storm surge, which had previously posed one of the most lethal hurricane hazards.

When storms such as Category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018 and Category 4 hurricanes Laura and Ida were bearing down on the coast, Graham played a key role briefing the White House, state and local government officials, emergency managers, broadcast media and the public.

“Ken’s lifetime of experience forecasting the weather and, more importantly, translating weather forecasts into actionable decisions points for emergency managers across the country has and will continue to save lives,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who has worked with Graham in her current job as well as when she headed the New York City Emergency Management Department, in an email.

In one of the biggest weather controversies during Donald Trump’s time in the White House, when Trump altered a Hurricane Center tracking map with a black marker in 2019 to support his erroneous charge that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama, Graham sought to defend his agency’s scientific integrity behind the scenes.

Even though Trump’s tweet and the altered map were wrong, NOAA — facing political pressure from White House and Commerce Department political appointees — released an unsigned statement backing the president and contradicting the forecast by the Weather Service office in Birmingham that the storm posed no danger.

NOAA’s actions infuriated members of public, many of whom emailed the Hurricane Center saying that it could no longer be trusted.

In response, Graham pleaded with the Weather Service’s leaders to craft a response signaling that federal officials’ scientific warnings would not be compromised.

“The biggest request we are getting are emails just asking for assurance we are science based as always,” Graham wrote to Mary Erickson, the Weather Service’s deputy director, in an email released under the Freedom of Information Act. “Not looking for anything other than [to provide] assurance ‘we have not changed.’ ”

Hurricane Dorian emails show how tenuous scientific credibility was in the Trump era

Otherwise, Graham managed to keep a low profile during Sharpiegate. His name did not appear in the 107-page Commerce Department’s inspector general review of the scandal, which rebuked political appointees in the department for siding with Trump over Weather Service forecasters.

Before coming to the Hurricane Center, Graham was the meteorologist in charge at the Weather Service office serving New Orleans, where he led the agency’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. He began his career at the Weather Service as an intern in New Orleans in 1994 and worked in broadcast meteorology before that.

Graham is a “fantastic choice” to lead the agency, said Neil Jacobs, who served as NOAA’s acting administrator under Trump. “From working as a forecaster in the field to advancing [the Hurricane Center’s] mission over multiple challenging seasons, Ken has the perfect balance of leadership skills, operational experience and support of the emergency management community.”

Uccellini described Graham’s selection in an email as “great news for the National Weather Service, NOAA and the nation.”

Jamie Rhome, deputy director of the Hurricane Center, will fill Graham’s former post in an acting capacity until a new permanent director is named.

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