Rainy Day Dream
The eight or so meteorologists at the Institute for Storm Research worked frantically to calculate the path of a big disturbance rumbling across the Gulf of Mexico toward the coast in 1987. They relied on the latest available computerized charts laid out on a table.
In the frenzy, forecaster Paul Eskine realized he'd forgotten to post the newest material on the wall. He saw his boss, Dr. John Freeman, emerge from his office to study the outdated charts. Freeman returned to his desk and, shunning the electronic wizardry of weather predictions, worked on his calculations. Then he emerged from his office again. His staff looked up at him, afraid to tell the veteran that he'd been using dated material.
Eskine remembers Freeman announcing one word: "Biloxi."
"And that was it," Eskine recalls. "It was kind of funny. But sure enough, the storm [hit] only 20 miles from Biloxi."
Those stories and others reinforce Freeman's reputation as one of the finest forecasters in his field, a pioneer who can still pinpoint a hurricane path with primitive tools and calculations -- or with the latest computer technology, which dominates weather predictions these days.
For 60 of his 80 years, he has plotted storm targets. Now Freeman is focusing on an equally elusive target: creating a weather museum for Houston. In a city boasting museums for everything from funerals to firefighting, the founder of the Weather Research Center thinks we need an institution dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of meteorology, past and present.
The weather industry and Freeman found each other through chance. When he was a senior at Rice University in 1941, Freeman's future was uncertain. He tells of being drawn to a bulletin board as he left class in the math building one afternoon. A posted flyer offered students a fellowship in meteorology. "It was financed by you getting into the army and becoming an aviation cadet," he says. "I was lured into weather by an offer for more education and a job."
His barometer of interest skyrocketed when Freeman learned he could earn advanced degrees emphasizing numerical data analysis. He got those at Brown and the University of Chicago.
Freeman's blend of academia and hard-core forecasting formed a lasting partnership in his profession. Texas A&M and the University of St. Thomas turned to him when the schools needed help creating their meteorology programs.
In 1967 Freeman started the Institute for Storm Research at St. Thomas. There, his meteorologists charted the weather and provided climate information for far-reaching areas of the globe for a variety of clients. Offshore oil drillers in particular relied on him for forecasts to guide them in building rigs that could withstand severe conditions and for knowing when to bail out from hurricanes.
Wayne Ingram, a retired civil engineer from Shell, remembers the respect his peers in the oil industry had for Freeman. "He's such an experienced person, and I know he can do what $50,000 worth of equipment can do -- and he can do it better and just as fast."
Freeman's meteorology students used the institute as an opportunity to get some hands-on training. And Freeman found enough funds from it to raise five children.
"I knew that if I was going into education that I would have to do consulting on the side, because then, professors didn't make enough to live on."
His institute attracted attention in the forecasting world. "I remember him being a hard professor, but he was very caring," says former student Eskine. "He wanted us to come out of school with more than a degree; he wanted us to come out real meteorologists."
For Freeman and much of Houston, it was a golden era, a calm before the big storm -- the oil bust of the '80s. As petroleum prices dropped and drilling operations dried up, so did business for the institute. In 1987 it was forced to close.
Freeman took a leave of absence and headed to New Mexico to work on a project, figuring that his days as an educator might be over. But new inspiration came from someone he himself had inspired at an early age: meteorologist Jill Hasling. It was his daughter Jill, the kid who accompanied him on so many searches for the eyes of storms or on research studies.
"My whole life, we were either going looking at hurricanes or collecting cards that came in on surface currents. We were always chasing something somewhere," she says. "I really got fascinated by the weather."
Hasling went on to break gender barriers at the National Council of Industrial Meteorologists, where she was the first female member and president. She convinced her father to come back and help her establish the Weather Research Center, a sort of incarnation of the institute.
"We worked really, really hard to expand our services after that happened, because we didn't want to be that dependent on oil again," Hasling says. "So we tried to expand our base to other types of services." The center opened in 1987 and is now headquartered in a nondescript office building only a block or so from a bottomless strip joint near Richmond in southwest Houston.
The center's five meteorologists and several volunteers serve up forecasts and data to diverse interests, including construction companies, the travel and transportation industries, and even law firms needing to know if it was really freezing on the day a plaintiff claims to have slipped on ice.
Hasling heads the center, but the obvious elder is Freeman. His watch hangs firmly from his left pocket, and tailored clothes provide the finishing touches on a neat, trim look. His white hair adds a debonair touch as he glides about the rooms with a stride not overly confident or humble but sure. Freeman's scholarly side at times tries to mute his passion for his work and the dreams for the museum.
He explains, almost apologetically, that he had sound reasons for entering the field.
"I wasn't a weather nut or --"
"Well," Hasling interrupts, flashing a grin, "you developed into one, because you're a weather nut now!"
Weather enthusiasts and those who know nothing about meteorology are both target audiences for the planned museum. Freeman and Hasling think there's ample interest because the center itself has attracted more than 2,000 visitors for tours, school field trips and its popular Weather Camp, the first of its kind in the nation.
The day camps, operated for the past six summers, drew more than 100 kids last year. The children examine weather studies and learn about such dangers as heatstroke, lightning, hurricanes and tornadoes. Some of the children are now six-year veterans.
"They are the ones that watch the Weather Channel 24 hours a day, and their mothers don't know what to do with them because they are just weather nuts," Hasling says with a laugh. "We're reaching out to them because we want to encourage them to go into weather and encourage them to stay in physics and math."
Revenues from the camps and donations have raised about $110,000 for the museum, about 10 percent of the $1 million envisioned for a first-class facility.
Plans include an area where kids would broadcast their own weather reports. Television forecasters, Freeman says, should discuss more of the physics involved in weathercasting. "They don't peel away the layers," he says. Museum planners also want interactive, hands-on exhibits that could create miniature tornadoes, hurricanes and flash floods.
Coupled with the high-tech wonders would be exhibits featuring early weather maps and charts, as well as now-primitive instruments used in forecasting long before computers or even radar. "To appreciate the weather as it is studied today, you should kind of get a feel for how it was studied 50 years ago," Freeman explains. The materials have been collected through the years by the center, and a major reason for the museum is to provide display space for them.
For now, the most popular part of history at the center isn't an early barometer or even a 1915 hurricane chart or related relic. It is Freeman, the venerable meteorologist who relishes the roles they all played in the early days of predicting the weather.
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