New hurricane center director: Warming climate to worsen storm surge

By Thomas Leffler,

Growing up in Roanoke, Va., Mike Brennan witnessed a host of severe weather events. From winter storms to the aftermath of hurricanes, Brennan saw it all, including an "impressionable" moment when he was 8 years old.

When his grandmother's home was lost to flooding caused by what was left of Hurricane Juan in 1985, the incident left a mark on the new director of the National Hurricane Center.


"Like most people who end up in meteorology, [I had] a pretty big interest in it at a young age," Brennan told AccuWeather national reporter Emmy Victor.

Brennan, who has been with the NHC for about 15 years, became the director of the organization on April 10. He began his time with the center as a senior hurricane specialist, issuing watches and warnings, coordinating aircraft reconnaissance missions and putting together forecasts.

He held that role for about a decade, but his expertise and skill quickly helped the North Carolina State University graduate climb the ladder, as he became the hurricane specialist unit's branch chief in 2018. While holding this position, he supervised the agency's hurricane forecasters during some of the busiest hurricane seasons on record, such as the hyperactive 2020 season.


Brennan became the NHC's acting deputy director this past year when the former director of the NHC, Ken Graham, left to take over the National Weather Service and the current deputy director, Jamie Rhome, filled in for Graham.

NOAA's National Hurricane Center is located on the campus of Florida International University in Miami. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Now leading the charge at the NHC when it comes to saving lives and protecting property against violent storms, Brennan told Victor that when he looks back on his career so far, he is proud of the journey he and the NHC have been on.

"You think of the big storms, but you also think of the progress we've made," Brennan said. "When I first got to the [NHC], we were barely forecasting the formation of systems out to a day or two, and now we're pushing that out to seven days this year, so that's tremendous progress ... we're able to give people a lot more lead time."

AccuWeather has a longstanding partnership with the NHC and helps to communicate hurricane forecasts with the public. Its tropical team is led by veteran meteorologist Dan Kottlowski, who has been predicting hurricanes for more than four decades.


Brennan told Victor he's excited to continue that progress and noted that two of his highest priorities are properly communicating the threats that storm surge and flooding rain can bring during a hurricane, as he said those two hazards combined are responsible for most of the fatalities that occur from tropical storms and hurricanes in the United States.

Pointing to a warming climate, he said that storm surge is "going to be worse," expanding into places not prone to high water levels in the past.

Mike Brennan, Ph.D., was recently selected as director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center. Photo courtesy of NOAA

"The other one is the rainfall flooding," Brennan said. "Warmer air holds more moisture, [and] we're already seeing higher rain rates, more extreme rainfall events both in hurricanes and other weather systems so that's gonna be a growing threat, as well."

Brennan pointed to historic storms such as Sandy in 2012 and Irene in 2011, but he also noted how hectic hurricane seasons have been in recent years, such as in 2017, when the destructive trio of major hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria all developed within a one-month timeframe.

"There have been so many impactful storms, especially here along the Gulf coast," Brennan said during a Hurricane Awareness Tour in early May. "We've had more Category 4 and 5 hurricane landfalls in the United States since 2016 than we had from the 1960s up to 2015, so it's just been a very, very impactful few years."


In terms of new products for the current season, Brennan noted that the NHC will be releasing new graphics regularly detailing peak storm surge, a snapshot of where storm surge is going to occur and how high water levels will be.

Along with the mainland United States, Brennan's team is expanding the reach of the NHC's newer storm surge products to places like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For places in the United States that are historically hit hard during hurricane season, the surge warning can highlight specifically where life-threatening conditions exist.

And past storms have proven that storm surges can be quite devastating. During Hurricane Ian in September, storm surge levels reached an astounding 13.8 feet at Fort Myers, Fla. In 2005, storm surge flooding of 25-28 feet above normal tide level was reported along the Mississippi coast as Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Those who have worked with Brennan over the years spoke highly of the new director's detailed knowledge of the profession, as well as his experience and ability to lead the NHC into the future.

"The NHC director is one of the most visible and important jobs in the nation, and Mike possesses the right combination of experience, leadership and personal traits to prepare and guide us through major storms," NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said of Brennan.


"Alongside our trusted and dedicated team at NHC, Mike will continue to leverage vital partnerships to provide the best forecasts and build resilience to the impacts of hurricanes in U.S. communities."

Brennan is following in the footsteps of Graham, who is now the director of the National Weather Service. Like Spinrad, Graham had nothing but positive things to say about his successor.

Brennan "is an innovator who has built incredible relationships across the agency and with our emergency management and media partners, and I look forward to the great things ahead at NHC under his leadership," Graham said.

Communication of risks during hurricanes is a vital and life-saving mission of the weather enterprise, which includes public and private weather forecasting entities.

AccuWeather chief meteorologist Jonathan Porter has known Brennan for years, as the two have worked together on the American Meteorological Society's Weather Analysis and Forecasting Committee.

"I have always been impressed with his knowledge, willingness to think creatively and steadfast dedication to the important mission of the National Hurricane Center," Porter said.

"AccuWeather is proud of our partnership with the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center to work together in order to help get the message out about hurricane threats in order to save lives and assist people in being better prepared for the wide variety of hurricane impacts, both at the immediate coastline and often well inland from flooding rainfall and other hazards."


Experts urge people in hurricane-prone areas to prepare now ahead of a possible strike from a cyclone.

"Unfortunately, places do get affected by multiple storms in the same season ... they have to prepare multiple times, that's just the risk that comes with living in hurricane-prone areas," Brennan told Victor.

Additional reporting by AccuWeather's Emmy Victor.

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