Alumna Melissa Huffman helps keep Texans safe during hurricane

Melissa Huffman ('12 M.P.A.) had planned a relaxing trip to her hometown of Coppell for the last weekend in August to celebrate her mother's birthday.

But as a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in League City, near Houston, Huffman canceled her trip when forecast models showed a tropical depression in the Caribbean -- named Harvey -- likely to hit the Texas coast after it strengthened into a hurricane.

The first major Atlantic hurricane of 2017, Harvey came ashore with Category 4 intensity near Rockport, then caused widespread flooding in the Houston metropolitan area with 30 to 64 inches of rain. Huffman stayed at her office for six days to track the storm, working 12-hour shifts. She was the lead radar operator, evaluating radar data and deciding when to issue warnings. She also issued and updated river and bayou flood warnings and provided forecast information to Harris County regarding the explosion at the Arkema Chemical Plant in Crosby.

"Hurricane Harvey was a career-defining storm," Huffman says. "It was all hands on deck. We issued 157 tornado warnings, and we had parts of Southeast Texas that were under tornado watches 70 hours straight."

She says she was lucky that her own home escaped flooding, noting that several of her co-workers' homes were damaged.

"We had to communicate through warnings and social media that Harvey would bring record-breaking rainfall that would cause dangerous flooding," she says.

As grueling as it was for Huffman to respond to Harvey and its destruction, she says the challenge of helping people to prepare is the best thing about her work.

Huffman's interest in meteorology was spurred by an event that occurred before she was even born. Her father, Rick Huffman ('84), survived the April 10, 1979, Wichita Falls "Terrible Tuesday" tornado, which killed 45 people and left more than $400 million in damage.

"Knowing about my dad made me want to keep people safe from disaster, which starts with predicting severe weather," she says. "I've always been fascinated by it."

While earning her bachelor's degree in meteorology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she completed an internship with the Fort Worth National Weather Service office. She researched requirements that emergency managers have for short-fuse weather warnings, such as those issued for thunderstorms, and realized she wanted to learn more. After graduating, she entered UNT's Master of Public Administration program for a specialization in emergency management.

"Building relationships with cities and other agencies in Southeast Texas before Harvey was key to helping as many people as we could, and the drive to build those relationships was something UNT's program instilled in me," she says.

During her five years with the National Weather Service, she's been part of its Integrated Warning Team in Texas, holding workshops on disaster communication for city employees and elected officials. She also visits schools to educate students about weather safety.

"I love sharing what I know with others," she says. "Weather isn't always at the forefront of everyone's mind, but when it's destructive, it's all we think about."

Q&A

Lessons from Harvey: 
The work that has been done to improve forecasts is paying off. Models talked about the potential for unprecedented rainfall for days in advance of the storm. More importantly, Harvey taught me a lot about messaging catastrophic events -- how important it is to explain the impacts.

Changes in technology:
Two big advances are helping meteorologists. Dual-polarization radar provides improved rainfall estimates, which is important for flood events, and knowledge of different types of precipitation in winter weather events. And a new weather satellite, GOES-16, provides more high-resolution data. It's like going from a black-and-white TV to an HD color TV. It helps us issue warnings and improves tropical cyclone forecasts.

Talking weather:
One of the more imaginative questions I get from children is "Do tornadoes have eyes?" Sometimes videos seen in the news or online give the appearance of a tornado "following" or moving intentionally toward people or property. Tornadoes can move in any direction and do not seek out things to destroy. Probably the biggest misconception is that each type of storms ― hurricane, thunderstorm, tornado, winter weather ― will all behave like the ones people have experienced before. No two weather events are the same and can result in dramatically different impacts. Overcoming this misconception is a huge challenge when it comes to getting people to take action to protect themselves from weather.

Advice for students interested in becoming meteorologists:
A passion for the weather as well as a strong background in math and physics is very important. It's critical to seek out internships or ways to gain experience in the field. There are many different types of meteorologists, including researchers, broadcasters and forecasters. Get exposure to the different areas to determine which is right for you.

Faculty encouragement:
Professor Bob Bland was a great help to me. My first year, he connected me with a UNT alumna, Melissa Patterson ('01 M.P.A.), who worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Services Center. At the time, it wasn't common for someone with a meteorology undergraduate degree to get an M.P.A. James Kendra, one of my professors in the program, who now works with the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center, was phenomenal in helping me go beyond natural disasters and think about the weather's role in technological hazards. In my work, I could be dealing with a ship collision or chemical spill caused by weather. I also was a research assistant to Professor Lisa Dicke, and she supported me as I went from a hard science background to political science and social sciences.

Memorable moment:
Attending the UNT Homecoming game in 2011. It was the 50th year of the M.P.A. program, and students, professors and alumni gathered on the field and were recognized during the game. It was amazing to see how many people the program had impacted over the years.

By Nancy Kolsti. First published in The North Texan, UNT's alumni magazine.