Storm surge specialist Jamie Rhome

Posted July 26, 2012 7:00 p.m. EDT

Roanoke Rapids native Jamie Rhome oversees the National Hurricane Center’s Storm Surge Unit in Miami, where he produces storm surge forecasts. He has worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, the North Carolina Climate Office of North Carolina, and as a policy analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Rhome holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in meteorology from North Carolina State University. He lives in Miami, Fla., where he says he enjoys year-round warmth and abundant fishing.

WRAL: Storm surge is one of the most dangerous parts of a hurricane. Just how deadly can it be?

Rhome: While strong winds have historically grabbed our attention, it is storm surge that accounts for the greatest loss of life from hurricanes. From 1962 to 2011, a total of 50 percent of the lives lost in hurricanes were due to storm surge-induced drowning. An estimated 1,000 people drowned in the storm surge from Katrina alone. Two of the top three deadliest disasters in U.S. history were caused by storm surge. In a nutshell, storm surge is the deadliest component of a hurricane.

WRAL: You are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s representative for the National Hurricane Program, which guides the decision-making process for the public during a hurricane. What do you do?

The National Hurricane Program is a tri-agency partnership of NOAA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. The program helps protect coastal communities and residents from hurricane hazards by conducting vulnerability assessments and providing tools and technical assistance to state and local agencies for developing hurricane evacuation, response and recovery plans.

As the NOAA representative, I serve as the subject-matter expert for hurricanes and hurricane hazards. Specifically, the group I oversee does the computer modeling work that defines the at-risk population. We essentially map who in coastal North Carolina and other states is at risk from storm surge during a hurricane. This information is turned over to local officials and emergency managers to assist their evacuation decisions during a hurricane landfall.
It is a fairly big job with lots of responsibility, but I love having the opportunity to apply my scientific knowledge toward public protection activities. Looking back, those miserable calculus and fluid dynamics classes at North Carolina State University are now worth it.

WRAL: What developing technology are you most excited about in terms of hurricane forecasting?

Rhome: In short, rapidly improving computing enables me to push the envelope in terms of modeling capability and forecast accuracy. Think about all the advancements in computing that have occurred in just the last five to 10 years (faster personal computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.). These advances in technology also enable researchers to advance computer modeling, and the National Hurricane Center is rapidly adopting those improvements with an eye toward improved forecast accuracy. This all results in more accurate storm surge forecasts for the public and emergency managers. More accurate storm surge forecasts result in improved evacuations and less lives lost during hurricanes.

WRAL: What are your thoughts on coastal development in terms of protecting property from storm surge?

Rhome: Ahhhh, politics. I know better than to dive into that one. In general though, the U.S. is on a collision course with the ocean, and we can’t keep developing within the coastal environment as we have historically. Regardless of one’s view of climate change and sea level rise, hurricanes will continue to pummel our coastlines with extreme coastal flooding and damage. Continuing to build within vulnerable areas is much too costly, and we need to take a holistic look at developing more smartly.

What we need now is a national discussion on how to best develop in the coastal environment, taking into consideration all issues and balancing the need of local communities to grow or sustain their economy with the ever-present threat from hurricanes.

WRAL: What was it like to work for the White House?

Rhome: In a word “intense,” but in a good way. I learned so much about politics and leadership while on that assignment. I also got to experience the changing of the guard as I worked for both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Understanding a little bit about how our nation’s capital works and how legislation is made has served me well back in Miami. I’m now able to see the bigger picture and appropriately engage at different levels of government. This has helped us raise the overall awareness of the hazards caused by storm surge and “move the needle” a bit in terms of getting the nation to take on the issue of coastal vulnerability and development.

When I started this job four years ago, you could barely get anybody to talk about storm surge or express any interest. Now, my calendar is booked months in advance, and keeping up with email is a full-time job. In my mind, that is progress. I also have much deeper respect for the history of the White House and its past/present occupants. Perhaps sometime in the future, I’ll get an opportunity to do an assignment on Capitol Hill.