At the National Weather Service office in Key West, the Meteorologist-in-Charge is packing his personal affects. He has been reassigned to a post in Kansas City and is taking two Honorary Conch Certificates, a hurricane flag, some cedar siding and other various mementoes collected from eight years of commanding one of the most hurricane-prone weather offices in the United States.
In 2002, Matt Strahan made landfall in Key West and laughs when asked how many Atlantic storms he has tracked on his radar.
“I counted one time and came up with 15 eyes tracked on local Key West radar,” he said with calmness usually reserved for a funeral director.
But his demeanor is deceiving.
Strahan is known to incite laughter during his hurricane history lessons and was named Grand Marshal for the 2006 Fantasy Fest after the record setting 2005 season that saw 22 named Atlantic storms develop.
Strahan is the exact opposite of the Jim Cantore-type television weatherman and is fully aware that in an area heavily populated by tourists, the ability to keep people calm is just as important to public safety as preparation. Public Relations master Andy Newman taught Strahan this important lesson that proved especially useful in 2005 when a tropical storm developed into a Category 5 hurricane in 31 hours.
“We thought it was the 1935 Labor Day storm all over again,” he said of Hurricane Rita.
“So whenever Keys people start talking about evacuation times, I think of that storm.”
But his legacy in Key West will be remembered for more than his numerous television appearances during the storm-laden summers of ’04 and ’05.
Under Strahan’s direction the weather service has become the principle public education source when it comes to hurricanes. He and his staff have made it a point to visit all the schools, and weather service’s flagship station at White and United was constructed with educational tours in mind.
Completed in the summer of 2005, the weather center is the first station in the country to deviate from the traditional bunker style, and it is one of Strahan’s proudest professional accomplishments – along with the bonds he has formed with the 20 staffers at the weather station.
“They are all experienced, well trained, and dedicated,” Strahan said. “My replacement is inheriting a good office and a great staff.”
The new Meteorologist-in-Charge, Fred Johnson, will not report until May 9, but Strahan will be with him at the Kansas City weather office when he takes over as International Branch Chief at the Aviation Weather Center.
During those few weeks, Strahan will share a few secrets with his successor, such as where to get the best café con leche (Sandy’s); his favorite dinner out (Blue Heaven); and the best spot to chill out (Cigar Alley). He will undoubtedly offer some background on the Florida Keys astute Emergency Managers including Irene Toner, Lisa Watson, Craig Marston, William Wagner and the most famous of them all – Billy Wagner.
“I will always remember Billy cutting the hurricane flags in half with his blow torch at the end of the ’05 season. That was such a horrible season and it actually got live coverage from CNN,” he recalled.
Another bit of advice he is sure to give will be to find a secure home – like the one Strahan shares with his wife and family therapist, Sherry, at 1800 Atlantic.
“He needs to find a good, weather resistant place to live, so he does not have to worry about his home and can concentrate his job,” said Strahan.
The final days for Key West’s chief weatherman will be bittersweet. His beloved ’73 Datsun will be packed for shipping as warm wishes from all those whose lives he touched continue to flood into the weather station.
One of the final belongings packed will be the last hurricane flag flown over the old weather station located at the airport.
“I am looking forward to hanging that sucker in my new office,” he said, before adding, “But it is going to be sad leaving what feels like my place.”