Episode Five (pt.2) – The 2020 Hurricane Season

English Transcript

Próximamente transcripción en español

Production team: Elizabeth Smith, Pat Hyland, and Ross Forsyth
Logo design and English transcription: Kathryn Geauer

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Pat Hyland: From the National Weather Museum and Science Center in Norman, Oklahoma, this is “When Did the Storm Begin,” a podcast bringing the history of weather to the forefront. My name is Pat Hyland, Chair for the National Weather Museum and Science Center. Today’s episode: The 2020 Hurricane Season with NWS Lake Charles.

Welcome back to our special two-part episode on the 2020 Hurricane Season with National Weather Service Lake Charles, Louisiana forecaster, Chanelle Stigger. In Part I, Chanelle discussed the historic 2020 Hurricane Season from a forecast-operations standpoint and the impacts on the Louisiana Gulf Coast region. For Part II, we interview Chanelle once again, but this time, to discuss the humans behind the forecast at NWS Lake Charles.

Meteorologists are often depicted as individuals standing in front of a green screen and delivering weather information over the television. However, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that is being done by meteorologists on a day-to-day basis all over the world that is beyond what you witness on television. 

Today, we find out what it’s like behind-the-scenes of an operational National Weather Service Forecast Office for the humans that are tasked with protecting the lives and property of the regions they serve, and the challenges they face as a human both inside and outside the forecast office.

Dr. Elizabeth Smith: Welcome back and thanks for joining us again, Chanelle! Something I think we might not always talk about enough is that our National Weather Service forecasters are human beings, with lives and families that live in the communities they serve. How does connection with the community impact the way you do your work?

Chanelle Stiggler: Living and working in this community definitely helps create a connection with the people we serve. I am fairly new, but I have people who will personally contact me if they are concerned about an upcoming weather event. Then you have my warning coordination meteorologist on the other side of the spectrum. He has worked here, worked and lived here for quite some time. He has emergency managers contacting him at all times of the day and night. Building relationships with the people in our community builds trust. During the very last live Facebook briefing before we had to evacuate, we actually told members of the public that we were evacuating, that our office was evacuating. They trusted us, so this caused them to want to evacuate too. There were people that were on the fence about it before that decided hey, we need to actually get the heck out of Dodge. 

ES: Wow. That’s really incredible, you know, decision support for those sorts of people. So, like you’re mentioning, in the case of Hurricane Laura, the Lake Charles weather forecast office evacuated. Can you share with us what the experience was like for you leading up to and during the evacuation?

CS: A few days before Hurricane Laura made landfall I was told to pack a bag so that I could stay at the office. I remember packing a tiny carry-on bag with a couple of clothes and a few toiletries. I really didn’t think much about it at the time. It was basically going to be like a mini sleepover with coworkers. August 26th, I got off work at about 01:30 in the morning. I immediately went home and passed out because I just knew it was going to be a busy day, Hurricane Laura was going to make landfall. I woke up at about 8~830 am to several missed calls, voicemails, and text messages from my mother and a couple of coworkers. Honestly, seeing that waking straight up caused me to panic a bit, but I calmed down and I called the office. Our Science and Operations Officer, Felix, told me that the Lake Charles staff had to evacuate. They were closing the building and National Weather Service Brownsville was going to take over operations. I might have sounded cool and composed on the phone, but at that point I really started to panic. I am not from Louisiana and this was the first time I’ve ever had to evacuate. I clearly remember packing a much larger suitcase and throwing pretty much everything that I could fit and everything that meant something to me into my car. I didn’t actually know where I was going at the time, but I knew I have family in Texas so I knew at the minimum that I was heading west. My mother actually got in contact with an aunt of mine in Houston and I stayed with her for a few days. After that I went to Beaumont with my boyfriend and his roommate, and his parents who were also evacuees from the Lake Charles area.  

ES: How do you deal with the stress that comes from working on hazards that pose real risks to your own home and community?

CS: I mean, I do worry. There is no doubt about that. However I don’t, I try not to let it interfere with my job. No amount of worrying is going to make a hurricane go away. If my worrying controlled the weather, the gulf coast would be the new SoCal! My coworkers and I have our own ways of dealing with stress, from taking a walk to taking a quick mental break to taking a smoke break for a few guys here. We find our ways at work to destress and get back to it. Some of them don’t worry too much because they’ve simply learned how to let go of what they cannot control. Before Hurricane Laura a lot of them boarded up and prepared to the best of their ability and that was all that they could do. There are also times when we are too busy to notice how we are doing, which can lead to compartmentalization. We have to detach ourselves from our feelings to get the job done. Sometimes we are even too busy to notice it and it happens kind of automatically. Another thing that we will do, something I talked about in part one is dance and sing along to a “stress relieving remix” during hurricane season. Something else I would like to mention is that we can just talk to each other. I am extremely fortunate to have a good relationship with my coworkers. I can talk to some of them about pretty much anything from personal issues to work-related stress. After hurricane Laura, we were in shock and it was hard to process everything that was going on and the damage. Now, we’re kind of numb to it. You cannot go anywhere even now without seeing either a debris pile or damage of some sort. This has definitely created a strong bond between not only the folk in the office but along and with the members of the community.

ES: We always like to take some time to learn a little bit also about each of our guests and their path to meteorology. So, what got you interested in weather?

CS: I have been interested in weather since I was a young child. My mom always likes to tell the story about me watching The Weather Channel as a toddler. I wouldn’t watch cartoons or any other show as much as I would watch The Weather Channel. I went to elementary school in Georgia so I got to actually tour the Weather Channel facility and the CNN building which had a broadcast meteorology little screen while I was there. I got to talk to one of the broadcast meteorologists at CNN during my tour. Starting either my junior or senior year in high school, I shadowed forecasters at NWS Las Vegas where I moved to when I was in middle school. That was an instrumental part of why I decided to become a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, that and when I was in college. I had two internships through the NOAA EPP / Hollings Program, it was NOAA / EPP, that was the one I was in. I had 2 summer internships. One was with College Park, MD, one was with NESDIS in College Park, MD, and the other one was with Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City, MO. I was able to network with several NWS employees and learn more about weather service from an insider’s perspective while I was working at, while I was interning at Aviation Weather Center.

ES: What’s your favorite part of your job as a National Weather Service forecaster?

CS: That’s a tough one! There are several parts of my job that I really enjoy. Pre-Covid, I really enjoyed outreach activities and getting kids interested in the weather via tours and via other outreach activities such as the JASON Project out in southeast Texas. The number one thing for me at the moment would be dealing with the COOP and upper air. So COOP is the Cooperative Observer Program where volunteers take daily weather observations and send their observations to us. Most of the observations are temperature or rainfall related, however we have a few sites in the area that can measure and monitor soil temperatures and water levels and give us gauge readings from the rivers. I’ve been interested in COOP pretty much since day one. Although we can’t interact with the observers at the moment, I still can go on trips to service outdoor equipment. Another thing I enjoy is launching the weather balloon. At least twice a day at 00Z and 12Z, we launch a weather balloon with an attached parachute and radiosonde. The sonde has a transmitter on it that will send back atmospheric data every one to two seconds. Some of the data we get back include pressure, temperature, relative humidity, wind speeds and directions. At the office, we write “NWS Lake Charles” along with the date and launch time. Something special that I do is actually write a friendly note or inspirational message on the sondes. If I launch during a holiday, I’ll usually write something along like happy and then whatever holiday it is. On a normal day, I’ll write “I hope you have a great day,” or “Have a marvelous Monday, terrific Tuesday / Thursday, wonderful Wednesday, fantastic Friday, Super Saturday or Sunday” or something nice like that. After Hurricane Laura, my messages became more hopeful and inspirational. I along with everyone else in the area were going through a dark place mentally, so I decided to write things that would cheer me up if I were to find them. One of my messages that I wrote on there, “We will rebuild, stay strong,” was found by a woman in Lafayette. It was the first time someone notified me that they found one of my sondes, which was pretty cool, but I was more elated when they told me it made their day. That’s what I do it for. If you find one of my sondes, I want it to put a smile on your face.

ES: I really love that story. I really, really do. As a person of color and as a woman in science, what have your experiences been like in what happens to be a pretty white and male dominated field?

CS: I went to a HBCU while I was in college so I did not have to worry about it there. A few former friends from high school told me directly that I am only where I am now due to affirmative action. Words like that cut deep. I am suffering from imposter syndrome because I can’t get that out of my head. I will literally work myself into the ground and go above and beyond to prove that I am worthy. During one of my internships, I overheard a less than favorable comment about me in regards to my race. I don’t want to go too much into detail about it, but I was pretty broken-hearted because I did not expect that individual to say that.

Surprisingly I haven’t had too many negative experiences here as a person of color. I usually steer clear of posting videos and pictures of myself on our official social media sites, on our official social media sites, so that might play into why. I want to be more involved in live and interactive briefings, but I am hesitant to show my face for a variety of reasons. One of which is wondering how the members of the public will react. I have talked to other Black female broadcast meteorologists and they have told me horror stories of the threats and nasty messages that they have received. I in no way am looking forward to that.

I’ve actually had more negative experiences from being a woman here. When I answer the phone at the office, it’s not uncommon for someone to quote “Ask for a real meteorologist.” I’ve had members of the public assume I’m a secretary and not a meteorologist. One time, someone joked about it and said they didn’t even know female meteorologists existed. That’s something that I’ve become numb to, and not just myself, but another female who works in my office as well. As far as office interactions are concerned, they do not treat me differently. I got really lucky. I again do not want to go into details, but I’ve heard, I’ve heard stories from other minority NWS employees who have experienced direct racism at their office.

ES: Thank you so much for, you know, sharing some of what you’ve experienced yourself. I think it’s important to talk about these things and say some of these things out loud so that we can all hopefully spend some time reflecting on how we got here and what steps we can take to make it better. Because people like you are what makes our field better. If we were all the same we would never come up with new ideas. I firmly believe that’s true.

CS: Yes. 

ES: So, thank you for being here, and thank you for being here with me today. 

CS: Thank you.

ES: So, what advice would you give to someone like you wanting to explore this path? 

CS: Oh, absolutely. Just do it! Don’t let anything get in the way of your dream! The path might seem rocky but keep the goal in mind. If I let a bump in the road stop me, I would not be where I am today. It’s also important to network and have a support group. There will always be naysayers telling you what you can’t do. You need to ignore them. You can do anything that you put your mind to. Don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals in the field that you are interested in. Most of us don’t bite! But it’s important to do that so you can learn more about what your future career might be. You have probably heard this before, but I have to say this: Experience as much as you can! From work experience via internships to shadowing a professional in the field, get as much experience as you possibly can. And last but not least, do not be afraid to ask questions. It’s better to know and knowledge is power.

ES: Absolutely. Well, I really want to thank you, Chanelle, and the rest of the team at NWS Lake Charles for your service to the public during a hard year, and for sharing about your professional and personal experiences. I wish the Lake Charles area and the entire impacted coast all the best in continued recovery efforts. And thanks so much for being with us on this episode of When Did the Storm Begin.

If you or someone you know experiences stress and anxiety associated with high-impact weather, you can find resources at weather.gov/oun/stormanxiety. Above all else, don’t be scared, be prepared. Visit ready.gov and make your safety plans today. 

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PH: Have an idea for our next episode? Share your ideas and questions for us at info, that’s i-n-f-o, at National Weather Museum dot com [info@nationalweathermuseum.com], or find us on social media. The National Weather Museum and Science Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that operates with the generous support of people like you. Help us continue to preserve the history and highlight the future of weather research by donating or becoming a member today. Find out more at www.nationalweathermuseum.com

Next time on “When Did the Storm Begin” we interview Tom Warner about one of the centerpieces of the National Weather Museum and Science Center, the T-28 Storm Penetrating Aircraft.

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