Melissa Huffman

Melissa Huffman ('12 M.P.A.) (Photo by Ahna Hubnik)Melissa Huffman ('12 M.P.A.) had planned a relaxing trip to her hometown of Coppell for the last weekend in August to celebrate her mother's birthday.

But as a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in League City, near Houston, Huffman canceled her trip when forecast models showed a tropical depression in the Caribbean -- named Harvey -- likely to hit the Texas coast after it strengthened into a hurricane.

The first major Atlantic hurricane of 2017, Harvey came ashore with Category 4 intensity near Rockport, then caused widespread flooding in the Houston metropolitan area with 30 to 64 inches of rain. Huffman stayed at her office for six days to track the storm, working 12-hour shifts. She was the lead radar operator, evaluating radar data and deciding when to issue warnings. She also issued and updated river and bayou flood warnings and provided forecast information to Harris County regarding the explosion at the Arkema Chemical Plant in Crosby.

"Hurricane Harvey was a career-defining storm," Huffman says. "It was all hands on deck. We issued 157 tornado warnings, and we had parts of Southeast Texas that were under tornado watches 70 hours straight."

She says she was lucky that her own home escaped flooding, noting that several of her co-workers' homes were damaged.

"We had to communicate through warnings and social media that Harvey would bring record-breaking rainfall that would cause dangerous flooding," she says.

As grueling as it was for Huffman to respond to Harvey and its destruction, she says the challenge of helping people to prepare is the best thing about her work.

Huffman's interest in meteorology was spurred by an event that occurred before she was even born. Her father, Rick Huffman ('84), survived the April 10, 1979, Wichita Falls "Terrible Tuesday" tornado, which killed 45 people and left more than $400 million in damage.

"Knowing about my dad made me want to keep people safe from disaster, which starts with predicting severe weather," she says. "I've always been fascinated by it."

While earning her bachelor's degree in meteorology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she completed an internship with the Fort Worth National Weather Service office. She researched requirements that emergency managers have for short-fuse weather warnings, such as those issued for thunderstorms, and realized she wanted to learn more. After graduating, she entered UNT's Master of Public Administration program for a specialization in emergency management.

"Building relationships with cities and other agencies in Southeast Texas before Harvey was key to helping as many people as we could, and the drive to build those relationships was something UNT's program instilled in me," she says.

During her five years with the National Weather Service, she's been part of its Integrated Warning Team in Texas, holding workshops on disaster communication for city employees and elected officials. She also visits schools to educate students about weather safety.

"I love sharing what I know with others," she says. "Weather isn't always at the forefront of everyone's mind, but when it's destructive, it's all we think about."

1 comment

Meteorology fascinated me as a teenaged boy. I kept graph records of pressure and temperature versus time with other weather events added in. Over the years I found that I could predict weather a month or more in advance by comparing past pressure patterns with current pressure patterns for that locality. This was at Cedar City, Utah.

Comment #1 posted by Oreste Lombaerdi (not verified) 5 weeks 5 days ago.

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