80th Anniversary of the establishment of the Hurricane Warning Network

Weather Bureau Chief Willis Gregg 1935
Weather Bureau Chief Willis Gregg 1935

On April 1, 1935, the United States Weather Bureau (USWB) implemented an overhaul in the way it forecast hurricanes.  The Bureau had come under increasing criticism over the past decade about the way it handled hurricane forecasts.  A hurricane had struck Galveston in August 1932 with little warning.  Two years later another storm threatened the city and an alert was raised.  When the storm failed to materialize, Galveston authorities contacted the Washington headquarters of USWB.  They were informed that the forecaster was presently on the golf course.

The outrage aimed at the Bureau forced it to reconsider its hurricane warning effort.  At the time, all hurricane warnings were issued from the USWB’s Washington headquarters and information was only updated every twelve hours, the same schedule that regular weather observations were made.  Often the lead forecaster would be on long shifts waiting for the next forecast cycle to begin.  With little to do until the new observations came in, they would often be absent from headquarters (even on the golf course) waiting for the new data.

1935 Hurricane Warning Network
1935 Hurricane Warning Network

The reforms included designating other Weather Bureau offices (in San Juan, New Orleans, and Jacksonville) as other Hurricane Warning Centers and divided the North Atlantic basin into areas of responsibility (AORs) for the new centers.  Each center was staffed by two forecasters who would be dedicated to handling the hurricane warnings when a system was in their AOR.   And the centers were tied together with a dedicated telegraph line.  When a tropical system threatened landfall in the United States or its territories, the warning cycle was increased to every six hours.  When landfall was immanent, the warnings were increase to every hour.

Grady Norton surrounded by personnel of the Miami Hurricane Warning Center
Grady Norton surrounded by personnel of the Miami Hurricane Warning Center

Heading the Jacksonville Warning Center was Grady Norton, who would become known to a generation of coastal residents as “Mr. Hurricane.”  He was assisted by Gordon Dunn, who later would become the first official director of the National Hurricane Center.  They were put to the test later that year when a severe hurricane changed course while in the Florida Straits and unexpectedly struck the Florida Keys on Labor Day.  Despite this tragedy, this new system served the public well, and new centers were later designated in New York City and Boston.  The Jacksonville center was moved to Miami in 1941 in order to co-locate it with the Navy and Army Air Force forecast centers.  This center would later be designated the National Hurricane Center.