Lake Charles, La., which got hammered by Hurricane Laura in the wee morning hours of Aug. 27, is just shy of 400 miles from Brownsville as the crow flies, though in one sense Brownsville was right in the thick of it.
The National Weather Service Brownsville station took over for the NWS Lake Station when its personnel had to evacuate as the Category 4 storm bore down on the Louisiana/Texas coast. Barry Goldsmith, warning coordination meteorologist with the Brownsville station, said NWS stations are always ready to back each other up if one or more have to go offline because of a storm.
“ In short what we do is we turn a switch, and that switch allows us to take all of our equipment that we issue forecasts and warnings and other information on to mirror Lake Charles,” he explained. “It’s like we become their office.”
The Brownsville station had access to all the Lake Charles station’s maps and graphics in order to keep the public and local emergency management authorities informed as the storm came in, Goldsmith said.
“ We put ourselves in their shoes, and we can do that very effectively,” he said. “In fact we’ve actually showed that over the last 24 hours, everything from tropical information to flood warnings to hydrology information to text statements that we issue.”
Lake Charles would do the same for Brownsville if a Category 4 hurricane were bearing down on the Rio Grande Valley, Goldsmith said.
“ The Brownsville office is on the east side of Brownsville only about 20 miles from the coastline as the crow flies,” he said. “If we had a storm like Laura making landfall with that kind of power coming in at the mouth of the Rio Grande, we would be leaving too.”
NWS stations practice regularly in preparation for such contingencies — ideally during an actual weather event that requires issuing copious information to the public, Goldsmith said.
“ It not always happens that way, but we do a back-up several times a year where we actually assume their responsibilities,” he said. “Now it may be a fair-weather day, but it does give us the training to see their area, to look at their maps, to understand their region their geography, to provide information as they would.”
Goldsmith said NWS actually have four levels of back-up in the event three stations are forced offline by a monster storm.
“ Potentially one or two of them could go down for communications,” he said. “Then they have to revert to backup, and that backup could filter down to the fourth level, and that’s what happened with Hurricane Irma back in 2017, where we actually have to invoke as an agency a fourth-level backup.”
What it means is that in the event the Miami, Fla., station had to be evacuated and Tampa Bay and Key West and San Jan, Puerto Rico, were down or had their hands full, Brownsville would become Miami for the purposes of forecasting and other vital information.
“ The bottom line is we want to make it seamless for the public, so that they just know that the weather service is working for them no matter where we’re working from,” Goldsmith said. “We don’t go down is kind of the motto in that sense. We are always up, 24/7, no matter what the situation may be in an area that is being heavily affected by potential life-threatening event that would black out an office in terms of power and possibly worse. The weather service is still here to support and serve.”
Back at work Thursday morning after maybe four hours of sleep, Goldsmith was still helping out the Lake Charles station, whose Doppler radar dome was obliterated by the storm, making sure emergency management officials in Louisiana had the latest information.
“ They had one person working 24 hours on this and he’s handing it over to me …. to provide their partners a continuous flow of information to help make public safety decisions,” he said.
Next comes damage assessment, which will shed light on whether Laura was as destructive as forecasters had feared.
“ We’ll just have to find out,” Goldsmith said. “That always takes time after the storm departs.”