S h i r l e y  M u r i l l o

   Hello, Shirley Murillo here. Here? You may be wondering where here is. Well here is Miami, Florida. I'm a meteorologist and work at the Hurricane Research Division (HRD) of NOAA. I study hurricanes for a living and sometimes I even get to fly into them. Yes, fly into hurricanes, but more about that later.

   I work with a team of meteorologists who examine the winds inside hurricanes. Hurricane force winds range from 74 mph to over 155 mph! Winds this strong are known to cause a great deal of damage to cities along the US coast. During the hurricane season my job is to produce hurricane surface wind analysis. We receive up to the minute wind data from ships that are near the storm, buoys, satellites, and aircraft that are flying in the storm. All these data are "adjusted to surface" which means that with a little math we can get satellite wind measurements to tell us what's going on at the surface. A computer generated map of the wind field is produced. This product is then given to the hurricane forecasters to aid them in detecting where the highest winds are located in the storm and when tropical storm force winds (41 mph or greater) or hurricane force winds (74 mph or greater) will make landfall. The hurricane forecasters can also use the wind analyses to put up "watches" or "warnings" in areas that may be affected by the highest winds in the storm. HRD produces these wind analyses on a 6 hour basis, but when a hurricane is approaching land, we go on a shift schedule (around-the-clock) and produce analyses on a 3 hour basis.

   Once a while, I get the opportunity to fly into these powerful storms we know as hurricanes. Most of my family and friends think I have a wild streak in me for doing this. What better way to find out what is going on with a hurricane than going right inside one? A team of scientists and the flight crew get to go on board a mission that most people tend to shy away from. Our airplanes are equipped with instruments and computers that help us measure the storm. We need to find out if the storm is strengthening, how fast it's strengthening, where its headed, how strong the winds are, and the location of the eye (the center of the storm). Most of the data collect gets transmitted via satellite to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). My responsibility on board has been to operate two radars that are on the plane. When we get near the storm I start recording images from both radars. If the Lead Project Scientist (scientist in charge of the mission) wants to change the tilt of the radar, or wants to make sure the data is coming in correctly, I'm the person he talks to. I monitor and jot down any notes about the radar images I see or anything that is going on during the flight (for example: "48 dBZ in eyewall", "symmetrical eyewall", "very bumpy near eyewall... almost spilled my soda!"). The best part about the whole trip for me is getting to the center of the storm (the eye). Most of the time the eye is the most peaceful part of the storm.

   After a bumpy ride through the eyewall, the sky clears, the bumpiness stops and for a couple of minutes, everything is quiet, no rain, no lightning, just the hum of the plane. This is what I experienced during Hurricane Georges (1998). Everyone is looking out the window or taking pictures. All around us is a wall of white cloud. It's kind of like standing in the middle of a stadium, down in the field and the stands are the clouds. During Georges (1998) it was clear from top to bottom. The sky above was a deep blue and the ocean below had ferocious waves. Before you know it we're back in our seats, strapped in our safety harnesses, and exiting the eye. Usually flights last 10-12 hours, so when we arrive at the airport, I'm glad to be back on land.

   When the hurricane season is over and all the flights are done, I go back to my office and gather all the wind data on "landfalling" hurricanes for that season and create post-storm wind analyses. These are wind analyses that require a bit more investigative work. All the data are adjusted to a "land exposure": this means that we take into account land friction and land effects (i.e. trees, houses, buildings). These analyses help us understand how strong the winds were during landfall. Hopefully once all of this is finished, we write and publish papers on our findings, rather like a science report you do in school.


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