It’s 2021, so let’s put aside the debate about the growing power of federal bureaucrats and salute a civil servant for a job well done.
Most folks probably never heard of Robert Ricks Jr., who spent 30 years crafting forecasts for the National Weather Service. He retired last month. His most memorable forecast, his masterpiece, was issued at 10:11 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina was making its assault on New Orleans.
“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer,” was his most stark prediction.
But he also said that industrial buildings would become “nonfunctional,” the power grid would be destroyed, and “water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”
New Orleanians were already fleeing the city in advance of the storm, but the starkness of Ricks’ message was hardly lost on those who were straggling or wavering.
The message was so vivid that the agency’s Washington office was receiving calls from media wondering whether the warning was a hoax.
“They were getting calls from the national press saying, ‘We think this is a hoax. We’ve never seen a product come out like this, with this kind of wording. You sure this is real,’” Ricks recalled. Katrina loomed offshore as a Category 5 storm, but by landfall, it had diminished to a Category 3. It was the storm surge and the levee failures in New Orleans that made Rick’s nightmare prediction come true.
Ricks, a New Orleans native, was involved in other dramatic weather forecasts as well.
In 1995, he predicted 12-15 inches of rain would fall on southeast Louisiana on May 8, and then that it would happen again on May 9. He was right then too, and Abita Springs recorded 25 inches of rain in what came to be known as the May 8 floods.
He also worked during the BP oil spill in 2010, advising whether weather conditions would be favorable for operations to stifle the underwater flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon site.
And he predicted the August 2016 floods that attacked greater Baton Rouge. New Orleans-born author Michael Lewis, in his 2018 book “The Fifth Risk” and recently in an address to the Bureau of Governmental Research, suggested that the stability of the American democracy owes in part to competent and committed civil servants. In 2020, we turned to our civil servants again, and they joined forces with medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies to deliver COVID-19 vaccines in record time.
It’s easy to attack civil servants as power-hungry bureaucrats, and there have been troubling abuses or government authority. But a well-run government can save lives, which is what Robert Ricks Jr. did on Aug. 28, 2005.