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The director of the National Hurricane Center reflects on what he's seen in his 15-year tenure


MICHAEL BRENNAN: If you're asked to evacuate by your local officials, you want to get out of harm's way. You don't have to go too far - maybe just tens of miles to get inland, away from that storm surge.


That's the voice of Michael Brennan recently advising the public on what to do in the wake of Hurricane Idalia that has left a trail of devastation throughout the southeast. He's the director of the National Hurricane Center and took the reins just over a month before the start of the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season. Michael Brennan joins us now. Welcome to the program.

BRENNAN: Nice to be with you.

RASCOE: So you've been - and you've had to deal with countless weather events during your tenure at the center. What struck you the most about Hurricane Idalia?

BRENNAN: You know, Idalia was yet another rapidly intensifying hurricane that we've seen several of that have made landfall along the Gulf Coast of the United States during the past several years. And that always creates challenges because we can have a system that goes from maybe not existing at all or being very weak to being up to a major hurricane within just two or three days. And it can reduce the time that people have to prepare and react. But I think in general, we saw a pretty good response in terms of preparation and evacuations and reaction in advance of Idalia by most folks in its path.

RASCOE: How have you seen hurricanes evolve since you first started at the NHC?

BRENNAN: Well, we came out of a long period without any major hurricane landfalls in the United States all the way from - going back to 2005 up until 2017. So we sort of had a big gap. I mean, we had significant storms - I think of Sandy, Irene, Matthew, other hurricanes - but we've had, you know, nine major hurricane landfalls in the United States since 2017 now up - including Idalia. So one of the challenges we face is that we have more people living along the coast. There's more infrastructure there, more property there, the potential for more loss of life and damage.

But the good news is is that the forecasts that we make and the information that we're able to provide to people about the hazards associated with the storms has improved dramatically since I, you know, came to the Hurricane Center in 2008. We're really able to provide a lot more information, for example, about storm surge, which is the hazard that has the potential to kill the most people in tropical storms and hurricanes in a single day, as we saw, you know, in Hurricane Ian in 2022. We have specific warnings and products now that can provide people a much better idea of the threat of the - of storm surge that they'll face in a storm even two or three days prior to landfall. And that was certainly not the case 10 or 15 years ago.

RASCOE: So tell us about how climate change is affecting hurricane behavior in your view.

BRENNAN: I mean, there are some studies that suggest, you know, in a warming climate, the intensity of storms will increase by a small amount and that we could have more rapidly intensifying storms. But we're more confident in the impacts of the water hazards - are actually going to increase. For example, we know that sea levels are rising as the oceans warm, and by the end of this century, sea levels are going to be 2 to 3 feet higher than they were just a few years ago. And that makes more places more susceptible to storm surge because the base water level is all that much higher before you even have the storm come along. We're also seeing increased rainfall rates - not just in tropical storms and hurricanes, but in weather systems in general - that can cause more flooding. And we expect those rainfall rates to increase by about 15%. And that rainfall flooding has been the biggest killer in tropical storms and hurricanes in this country in the last 10 years.

RASCOE: You've been with the center for 15 years. What is it like being - working at the center and having to make these weather predictions that affect people's lives so dramatically?

BRENNAN: You know, it's a really rewarding experience to be able to, you know, serve the American public this way. You know, these storms are going to happen whether we're here or not, and our job is to make sure that we can get people through them safely and protect lives and property as best we can. So it's a really fulfilling job, and it's certainly a sobering job at times when you see storms and you know storms are going to be devastating to communities. And being affected by a major hurricane can change the character of a community for generations. It can lead to all sorts of suffering and pain and trauma in people's lives. So that's something we deal with 'cause we deal with every storm here. And no matter where it hits, we feel a little bit of that ourselves.

RASCOE: So what is your team looking for as you move forward in this hurricane season? And what do you want the public to know?

BRENNAN: We got a lot of hurricane season left. You know, we're not even really at - the statistical peak is here in the next, you know, week or so. But the vast majority of the hurricane activity in the Atlantic happens between mid-August and mid-to-late October. So we've got a long ways to go. The thing we can certainly tell people is there are going to be more storms. We don't know exactly where they're going to go or who they're going to affect. But people who live in a hurricane-prone area, as you saw with Idalia this past week, you need to have that plan in place 'cause you can have a storm develop and come affect you in a very short period of time.

And this is the time - if you don't have your plan ready, have your plan ready. Get your hurricane supplies ready. And if you live in one of those evacuation zones where you might be asked to leave your home in advance of a storm, have that plan in place about where you're going to go, how you're going to get there, what you're going to take with you, because it's a lot easier to make that plan now than to make it in the face of an approaching storm.

RASCOE: That's Michael Brennan. He is the director of the National Hurricane Center. Thank you so much for joining us.

BRENNAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.