Jack Hayes, 63, director of the National Weather Service, in front of the WSR-88D Doppler Radar at the the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington Forecast Office in Sterling. (Benjamin C. Tankersley/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

In our business, it’s about the certainty of our predictions. So part of what I do is I tell you what’s going to happen. But you want to know, “How sure are you?” I’m pretty darn sure, but we’ve got to go beyond that. The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, all the private sector, depend on us to do what we do. The satellite information you see, the radar information you see, the weather forecasts day in and day out, and certainly the weather warnings, they originate here. We have a network of Doppler radars, and they allow us to look inside thunderstorms and get advance warning on when tornadoes are going to form. Our average advance warning for the public on a tornado is roughly 14, 15 minutes. I will tell you with the severe weather we had in Alabama; Joplin, Mo.; North Carolina — those deadly tornadoes — our average lead time was well above that. So the question we’re struggling with right now is: Why did so many people die?

I went to Birmingham after the Alabama tornadoes. Northwest of Huntsville was the most striking. About three-quarters of a mile to a mile wide was a path of destruction of an EF 5 tornado — the most intense — moving over 200 miles an hour. It’s like someone ran a vacuum across the homes: They’re gone. Part of it is the awesome strength of an EF 5 tornado. In some cases, maybe it’s building codes. If I told you that we’re going to have a tornado hit here in 10 minutes, what’s your first inclination? A lot of people say, “Gee, I want to see it.” And in fact, what did I do at the start of my career but run up and down I-35 [in Oklahoma] because I wanted to see it. There was one time when we were just east of what I think was a developing tornado, and I said, “Guys,” as you started to see that rotation in the cloud, “we gotta get out of here.” Because if it moved straight east — which is what it would do — then there was no escaping. So we just jumped in the car and gunned it and got the heck out of there.

If there’s something I can pass on to people that I’ve tried to pass on to my kids, it’s that that power is devastating, and if there’s a warning, stay away. With the Japanese tsunami, we predicted a tsunami [here] — we told California and Oregon and Washington, like, 10 hours before it was going to arrive. And some people went to the coast; some said, “Hey, we want to get pictures of this thing coming in.” And a couple of people went out on the rocks. And what happened? When it got there, at least one was washed to sea and killed. That’s the power of severe weather. You just don’t want to be anywhere near there.