Last updated 19 Jan 4

Harold P. "Hal" Gerrish

1930-2002

Former Hurricane Specialist, National Hurricane Center

NOTE: This is one among several memorial pages planned to be dedicated to the memory of special folks who have influenced and guided me, but who are no longer living with us on Earth. They are far from complete life stories, if such a thing ever is possible. Instead, these are tributes to the importance of their life in mine, and expressions of my desire to ensure that these good people are never forgotten. If you knew them, I gladly will publish your tributes here as well, with full credits. Photos and memorable stories are especially welcome.


I knew Hal during my time as a forecaster and analyst in what was then called the Tropical Satellite Analysis and Forecast Branch (TSAF, now TAFB) at the National Hurricane Center. He was a senior hurricane specialist during my three years in Miami, as well as the radar focal point. Always energetic, enthusiastic and positive, Hal's frequent smile and keen humor always seemed to brighten the mood on the floor. He was unfailingly generous of time and knowledge, plenty willing to help a brash young OU graduate learn both the tropical side of operational meteorology and the peculiarities of working "in the fishbowl" at a major national forecasting center.

For someone nearing retirement, he was remarkably unafraid to take on new responsibilities, learn new technologies and understand new meteorological concepts. When the WSR-88D radar system began to be deployed at coastal weather offices during the early 1990s, Hal stepped forward and agreed to be the man in charge of integrating this big, promising new tool into forecast operations of the hurricane center. I was the only NHC meteorologist at that time with substantial Doppler radar experience and training (from my prior tenure at NSSL), so I was priveleged to work with Hal quite a bit, as we cycled forecasters through remote radar training in Norman and got the first display equipment (a big dialup unit called the PUP) installed.

In the process, not only did we learn a great deal from each other, but I gained immense respect for Hal's solid professional ethic and great personal faith -- both being characterized by easygoing humor, perseverance, plain-spokenness and openness to new ideas. Here was a guy who had begun his career when radar itself was young, and when forecasters had no way to imagine the vast majority of radar concepts introduced by the NEXRAD deployment. Yet he, not any of the many younger forecasters at the center, was the one who first volunteered to lead the charge of getting Doppler radar into NHC, and getting NHC into the Doppler radar era. He succeeded robustly! Now, the WSR-88D is intertwined so closely in NHC's hurricane landfall operations that its absence is simply unimaginable. When phased array radars are deployed nationally in the coming decade or two, it is their experience with the 88D which NHC will draw upon to take that next step in applied technology and science. And ultimately, Hal is to thank.

Hal worked shifts forecasting Hurricane Andrew and was a leader of the team who accurately predicted its devastating track across South Florida. Yet in the face of it, he retained not only his composure but that quick-draw sense of humor. When Andrew was still a tropcial storm well east of the Bahamas, and not very well developed yet, he recognized that it could turn west and strengthen. An excerpt from the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel...

      The key to the storm`s future is whether it survives what forecasters said would be a rough Wednesday night of high upper-level winds that could break it apart, Gerrish said.

      ``It's like me trying to run a 40-mile race, and I can't run 100 yards," said Gerrish, the hurricane center's most senior specialist. ``I'd be panting like crazy, and this thing is panting."

      But if Andrew makes it through the night, it may be able to strengthen for a couple of days, Gerrish said.

Did it ever. After that couple of days of deepening which he foretold, Andrew aimed itself straight at an area amazingly unmolested by major hurricanes for a quarter century -- territory that included Hal's own home. Aware of what it meant for himself, his family, his co-workers and the citizens of Dade County, he drew up the fateful hurricane warning a couple of days later, providing over 3 million people the ominous news that the most powerful hurricane in South Florida history soon would strike. In that way Hal gave sobering but needed notice that uncounted many lives would never be as they were, and that a historic natural disaster would soon unleash itself directly overhead.

Whether through his forecasts, media interviews, speaking appearances or everyday conversation, Hal was blessed with an uncommon ability to relate sometimes complex or seemingly convoluted meteorological ideas to anyone -- whether his listeners were was gruff old professors or a schoolroom full of chattering kids. His down-to-earth style and homespun wit appealed across all manner of audiences. He was in great demand as a speaker, for those very reasons. Hal himself was a professor (emeritus) in meteorology at the University of Miami, and the utter opposite of gruffness.

Hal's faith was obvious not so much in what he said as in how he lived. He didn't proselytize or talk down to anyone; instead, he simply set an example -- not only as a respected professional, but as a family man. He was far more proud of the photos of his wife and children on his desk than of the plaques and certificates, though in his career he garnered enough of the latter to fill far more space than his shared office ever would have allowed. He talked fondly and often about his family, a defining testament to the kind of husband and dad Hal must have been; and if one was willing to ask and listen, he would share his religious beliefs in a most humble and sincere way.

In his obituaries I learned of Hal's long record of service to his church in a staggering variety of ways, including the fact that he formed his own ministry after retiring from meteorology. It was no surprise at all. I have known few fellow Christians so well balanced and deeply rooted in their faith. Hal was someone who did not talk the talk so much as he walked the walk, in how he conducted himself and in his priorities in life. Such humble virtue is rare, and he should be remembered and recognized for it.

After a valiant struggle against ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), Hal died on 8 August 2002, survived by his wife, three adult children and five grandkids. Given his deep faith, it is fitting that the topic of his last metrorological speaking engagement (in March 2001) was "Weather in the Bible," to the West-Central Florida chapter of the American Meteorological Society.


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