Podcast & Show Notes - Emergency Manager Dick Gremillion

Show Notes

Thu, 7/7 10:35AM • 16:40

SUMMARY KEYWORDS weather, people, Hurricane Rita, forecast, hurricane, information, communication, extreme weather events, National Weather Service, events, hurricanes, storm, parish, Lake Charles, Southeast Louisiana, tornadoes, tools, Louisiana, communicating

[00:00:03] Drew Hawkins: This podcast is a production of a research project at Louisiana State University funded by the Louisiana Sea Grant called Communicating Climate Tools to Coastal Stakeholders, or CCTCS. Researchers from the Department of Communication Studies,the Manship School of Mass Communication, and the Department of Geography and Anthropology examined communication challenges during extreme weather events.

[00:00:34] Drew Hawkins: While Southeast Louisiana often gets a lot of attention for extreme weather events, think hurricanes like Katrina and Ida for instance, cities like Lake Charles in the western part of the state have faced a litany of catastrophic weather events over the past decade. People often think of meteorologists as the folks where they get their weather information. But when it comes to extreme events like flooding, tornadoes, and hurricanes, Emergency Managers can be a vital lifeline. Dick Gremillion is the Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for Calcasieu Parish, where Lake Charles is located. And we sat down with him to find out more about how he assesses and conveys information to the general public.

[00:01:27] Drew Hawkins: All right, we are here with Dick Gremillion. How are you this morning, Dick?

[00:01:31] Dick Gremillion: Great.

[00:01:31] Drew Hawkins: Great. Can I get you to talk a little bit about yourself? You know, give us your name, your title, your background,and a little bit of your work history experience.

[00:01:39] Dick Gremillion: Dick Gremillion. I'm the director of Calcasieu Parish Office of Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness. I've been the director here for 26 years. And over the years, we've had a number of major emergency declarations to date, my time dating back here. An ice storm in 1997, Hurricane Lili in 2002, Hurricane Rita 2005, Hurricane Gustav and Ike 2008, Hurricane Harvey 2016, Sabine River flood 2015, Hurricane Laura 2020, Hurricane Delta 2020, an icestorm in 2021, flood in May of 2021, and a fairly good-sized tornado in also October that year. We've stayed pretty busy the whole time I've been the director.

[00:02:41] Drew Hawkins: Dick, can I get you to talk about just in a general sense, your understanding of weather and climate information?

[00:02:48] Dick Gremillion: Well, you know, we're more interested in weather than we are climate. Because if you look at it from a tactical standpoint, versus a strategic standpoint, the weather is going to be your tactical problem. And climate would be more of a strategic type, longer range thing. We do keep an eye on it, but it doesn't present the day-to-day problems that weather does. Does that make sense?

[00:03:21] Drew Hawkins: Absolutely. And I know you just basically read a litany,and I know that Calcasieu Parish is no stranger to extreme weather events. Would you maybe mind taking us through some of the more severe ones that you've encountered and maybe talk about some of the lessons that you've learned from some of these events?

[00:03:40] Dick Gremillion: Well, during my tenure, of course, dating back to Hurricane Rita, in 2005, when Hurricane Rita came along, we had not had a direct hit here by a major hurricane since Hurricane Audrey in 1957. So almost 50 years, we've not had that sort of weather, and of course, people took it seriously. We’d just had Katrina three weeks earlier, and they saw the result of that, so that helped us, and we got people to evacuate. We had only one fatality for Hurricane Rita. It was because we had good communication with the public. They listened to our advice and most people who could, left for that. So, three years later, we found ourselves facing Hurricane Gustav. It actually turned and went to Central Louisiana, and then Hurricane Ike which was one of those weather phenomena. It was an only category 1 or 2 hurricane as it hit the shore over in Texas, but because of the size of the storm, it created a tremendous storm surge, even greater than we had for Hurricane Rita.

[00:05:05] So just with those two, with Rita and with Ike, two different types of weather, they're both hurricanes, but the damage from Rita turned out to be more wind and storm surge, where as Ike was pretty much only storm surge. So, one of the problems we've had weather wise over the last couple of years is we've had these storms experiencing rapid intensification in the Gulf of Mexico. And after Hurricane Katrina and Rita, and even Ike, we thought we had the timeline all figured out. We could use 120-hour timeline, and we had our marks where we had different tasks at the different times. Now, that 120 timeline over the last couple of hurricanes has been cut down to 72 hours or 3 days. For example, Hurricane Laura went from a tropical storm to a category 2 or 3 hurricane virtually overnight, I think it was a 36-hour period. Same thing happened with Ida in Southeast Louisiana.

[00:06:27] Drew Hawkins: Would you say that your primary audience, is the general public? Or are you communicating with weather experts or who are you generally communicating information to?

[00:06:37] Dick Gremillion: We follow the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service forecast;those are our official forecasts. I would say our major audience is our local residents. And, you know, I mentioned there were a couple other types like ice storm, tornadoes, things like that. Same precautions are given there. You know, you always think of hurricanes. But there's a lot of different weather things can happen in Louisiana, as you know.

[00:07:14] Drew Hawkins: And from your perspective, what would you say is the public's general understanding of weather information?

[00:07:22] Dick Gremillion: I think it’s pretty good. Some days, it’s hard for us to stick with the, you know, people don't understand the difference between the official forecast and maybe what they might see on television forecasts where they’re showing different models and things. The National Hurricane Center has become more and more accurate over the years. And I think, you know, I think the advice to follow what they say, is really the right advice.

[00:07:55] Drew Hawkins: What are some of the maybe more frequent communication challenges that you do see, when it comes to relaying weather information to the public and to residents of Calcasieu Parish?

[00:08:07] Dick Gremillion: You know, right now, for the last couple of years, we're experiencing hurricane fatigue, you know, people really just don't want to have to deal with it. We haven't had a major challenge on that yet. But we're kind of waiting to see if that's going to cause us any communication issues, when a time comes if we do have to take action on something. Another major issue right now has nothing to do with the weather. It has to do with the economy with gasoline being $5 a gallon. Some people don't have enough gas to get where they're going to or can't afford to. They may have a car, but they may not be able to put that $150 worth of fuel and to go somewhere. So, we're concerned about that this year as well.

[00:09:01] Drew Hawkins: So you know, obviously with Calcasieu Parish regularly, almost experiencing pretty severe weather events. How do you balance that line between hyperbole and communicating the actual risk of these events to people

[00:09:18] Dick Gremillion: We're, you know, we're very open and transparent about information. Our phone lines here are always open. You know, people–the closer we get to some of these events, people call. We have live briefings generally once a day when these things start up like this. I think there's a lot of information going out. And that's our goal, push out more information than questions that we get in. So, the information stream is very important.

[00:09:59] Drew Hawkins: Switching gears just a little bit to talk about some of the tools that you use. What would you say are some of the main tools that you use to assess extreme weather kind of in a day-to-day operations?

[00:10:12] Dick Gremillion: Again, back to the National Weather Service, they're the experts on this. They have a quite good system. Recently, over the last couple of years, they've been using YouTube, for example, to go over the local forecast. It gives the opportunity for the one-on-one or, you know, gather feedback to see what people are thinking.

[00:10:44] Drew Hawkins: So,there was a survey that was done by the Department of Communication Studies at LSU. And some of the most common tools they found that were used, were things like Convective Outlook, Cone of Uncertainty, and the Drought Monitor. Are these any tools that you use? And if so, can you talk about what the quality from your point of view of these tools?

[00:11:03] Dick Gremillion: You know, we're actually using some of the drought tools right now, because we're, you know, teetering on the edge of having to have a burn ban here, because of the dry weather we've been having. Fortunately, the humidity has been high enough lately that it’s tamped down most of that, and we're going to get some rain this week. But yeah, the drought–the last time we had a drought like this, I think was in 2000. So, it's fairly rare for us to be this dry. Each spring, of course, you have to look at the river and lake forecast as far as the river gauges for flooding. Some years, not this year, some years, that can be a big deal. We're a little different watershed here on the west side of state than they are on the east side. They're primarily Mississippi River delta to the east, and to the west, we have Sabine River and some other rivers out here.

[00:12:09] So, what was that the Cone of Uncertainty? Yeah, the 2-and 5-day forecast at the National Weather Service, the National Hurricane Center put out is really a vital tool. It gives you a graphical picture of where that storm might be going. And as I said, they've gotten more and more accurate on those track forecasts. Each year, what they have not been able to get quite as good a handle on is intensity forecast. They have some good guesses on it, but they'll admit that they're struggling still to get the intensity forecast down particularly in light of these rapid intensification events. And then what was the other one, you had?

[00:12:55] Drew Hawkins: The Convective Outlook.

[00:12:59] Dick Gremillion: Don't use that that much. I mean, if you live in Louisiana, it's going to rain, so you know, I think any day of the year, there's a potential for rainfall. So, it's, again, the result of the convection, which might cause flash flooding, is probably one of the most difficult things to anticipate, because you just never know. We had a wind event here, Sunday afternoon, that just came out of nowhere. It was hot, and some cool air clashed with it, resulted with 70, 80 mile an hour straight-line winds here in Lake Charles. There's really no way to forecast that.

[00:13:49] Drew Hawkins: Is there anything that you would do to improve the communication of these tools to the public or even people like Emergency Managers? Is there some challenges that you think could be mitigated?

[00:14:00] Dick Gremillion: Well, you know, I don't know, social media, of course, we use YouTube, we have YouTube Live for our briefings. So, one of the problems we had with Hurricane Rita, people evacuated the area. And then when they get to Memphis, or Salt Lake City or wherever they’re going, they turn on the TV, and there’s no news about what’s happening locally. So, we’ve solved that somewhat. We have internal television station here at the police jury. And when we have briefings with the weather service, or with elected officials, or whatever, we try to run those live, and they do it live on YouTube. So social media has really helped out a good bit. Of course we use Twitter, Instagram, all those other messaging in getting information out.

[00:14:55] Drew Hawkins: Dick, are there any things that we didn't talk about today that you feel–you wish more people knew about when it comes to communicating weather information, especially extreme weather information?

[00:15:06] Dick Gremillion: Well, it would be nice if the local weather forecasts you get, or the people who are on the internet who sometimes tend to sensationalize these things, give people wrong impressions. We do want people to be aware of what's going on as much as we can, and nobody’s going to hold back that information. But it would be helpful if the people who put out the non-official information would give a better explanation of what they're trying to accomplish.

[00:15:42] Drew Hawkins: Do you mind expanding on that just a little bit? Who do you mean when you think about that

[00:15:47] Dick Gremillion: I don't have anyone in particular. It's just that anyone nowadays can get their hands on those hurricane models and forecast models and things like that and give their opinion of what they think that means. And that's not to say that the National Hurricane Center is 100% right on all of their forecasts. But we have to pick, you know, the means of disseminating that information and we go with the official forecast from the National Weather Service.

[00:16:20] Drew Hawkins: Well, Dick, thank you so much for sitting down with us today. We really appreciate your time and you're really expert inside especially given the region where you work in.



Dick Gremillion