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Dr. Neil Frank was awarded the Robert and JoAnne Simpson Medal Award at the National Tropical Weather Conference. The following profile is based upon an interview with Dr. Neil Frank by William H. Kellar from the Center for Public History at the University of Houston, October 29, 2007.
Dr. Neil Frank was born and raised in northwest Kansas, where he developed a love for playing basketball. He attended Southwestern College, near Wichita, where he planned to major in Physical Education to become a basketball coach.
When one of the school’s science professors convinced him that if he majored in science, he would improve his prospects of getting a job as both a science teacher and coach, Frank changed his major and ultimately changed his path
After receiving a draft notice during his senior year of college, he opted for the Air Force and began training in meteorology. Following a year of study at St. Louis University, the Air Force sent him to Okinawa, an island in the western Pacific where he experienced three typhoons during his first summer on duty. After his hitch in the Air Force, Frank attended Florida State
University, where he earned a Ph.D. in Meteorology. He began working for the National Hurricane Center in Miami during his years in graduate school, and
accepted a permanent job following his graduation. After a career that spanned twenty-five years, including thirteen years as director, Frank retired
from the National Hurricane Center. KHOU in Houston convinced him to accept a job at the station as Chief Meteorologist. One of the first things Frank did at the National Hurricane Center was review U.S. coastal census figures to determine how many people in those communities had been through a
major hurricane (at least a Category 3). Because of the rate of development along the coast, it turned out that only about 25 percent of the people
had experienced a hurricane. Frank was deeply concerned that people would not understand the dangers posed by hurricanes. He developed a
slide presentation and began seeking every opportunity to deliver talks in which he educated people on the dangers of hurricanes and what to do when the National Weather Service issued hurricane warnings for their community. He spoke to community groups, local government officials, emergency managers, and people from the news media.
In the mid 1970s, the National Hurricane Center organized the first national hurricane conference to bring government officials and members of the
news media together to share information about how best to inform the public and increase hurricane preparedness. Uncertain about the response to the conference, Frank was pleased that about 500 people attended. The national hurricane conferences became an annual event and draw about 1,500 attendees.
Frank also began taking photographs of coastal areas whenever he traveled. After hurricanes, he would return to photograph the area again. He turned these before and after photos into a presentation to illustrate the damage caused by hurricanes. By the time he left the National Hurricane Center in 1987, he averaged 150 presentations a year to groups from Texas to Maine, informing people about the dangers posed by hurricanes and how they should respond to these storms. During his long career, Neil Frank has seen many changes in forecasting, primarily in the tools that meteorologists have at their disposal. Most important among these are the improvements in meteorologists’ observation systems. Frank recalled working at the National Hurricane Center in 1960-61, before satellites could be the eye in the sky for weather forecasters. In those days, they depended entirely on reconnaissance aircraft, which had a very limited range. It was possible for an aircraft to fly a mission but entirely miss an unknown storm because it was not in the plane’s flight path. The combination of satellites and aircraft today has vastly improved meteorologists’ ability to forecast the path and strength of tropical storms and hurricanes. Another improvement is the use of numerical models. Forecasters gather data and using these models are able to forecast weather reasonably
well for a three to five day period. Meteorologists also use models to forecast the movement of hurricanes. A third significant development has been Doppler Radar. Doppler Radar adds a second key component in that it can tell if the rain is moving towards the radar or away. The ability to indicate movement has improved weather forecasters’ ability to warn people in the path of potentially dangerous storms.
But with all the advanced technology and the concurrent improvement in the accuracy of weather forecasts, Frank also noted a disturbing trend in that the rate of improvement in hurricane forecasting has not been able to keep up with the rate of increase of coastal populations. The need for more accurate forecasts has far exceeded the ability of meteorologists to provide that kind of information. The technology simply does not exist that can allow forecasters to predict, with any degree of accuracy, the path of a hurricane far enough in advance to allow for the masses of coastal inhabitants to
evacuate safely. The primary danger for coastal residents is the storm surge. According to Frank, approximately nine out of ten people who perish in a hurricane drown in the storm surge. The problem, then, is when to order evacuations? Hurricane Rita, in 2005, provided many lessons for residents of southeast Texas, including the fact that it takes a good thirty hours to evacuate the most flood prone areas.
One glaring need, according to Frank, is for improved building codes not only in the coastal communities but farther inland too. It is possible to build homes and other structures to better withstand the force of hurricane winds. But, people need to learn form the lessons of history and use good sense in where they build too. Frank worries that in Galveston, the west end of the island resembles the east end before the Great Storm of 1900, with no sea wall to protect those budding communities. Beach erosion adds to the problem. Frank suggests that instead of building right on the beaches, developers create 200-300 yards of green space, perhaps build a golf course, in order to reduce damage to homes and other structures. "I really am concerned that we are going to have a major disaster sometime," Frank stated. "I am just concerned that we are continuing to build in very hurricane vulnerable areas and at some time in the future, we are going to pay the price. We have a rich history of hurricanes on the Texas coast and we are ignoring those warnings as we continue to build in the vulnerable areas."
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