He hails from the Northeast, and even though Fred Johnson arrived in the Keys just a couple weeks before the start of the hurricane season, Key West’s newest Meteorologist-in-Charge is no tourist when it comes to tropical weather conditions.
True, he hasn’t been here long enough to find the best café con leche, go fishing or appreciate a good local political scandal, but Johnson has the experience and leadership skills to command one of the most hurricane-prone weather districts in the United States.
He recently retired as a colonel with the Air National Guard and served as emergency preparedness liaison officer at Tyndall Air Force Base in Northwest Florida where he played a key role in recovery efforts following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. He is also a certified emergency manager and held the title of Warning Coordination Meteorologist while stationed in Jacksonville, Florida.
In 1999 he tracked Hurricane Floyd through five states. The storm caused one of the largest evacuations in American history.
“I evacuated my wife, and at least two-thirds of the staff moved inland,” he said from the conference room at the fortified weather office in Key West.
He is already reveling in his new digs.
“It’s amazing to me,” he said about the flagship office at White and United. “It’s a lot more spacious and has more light than most offices. It is not the cookie cutter office you see in the weather service.”
After graduating from Penn State with a degree in meteorology, Johnson used the contacts he made as an enlisted man in the Air Force to land a job at the National Weather Service offices in Toledo and Cleveland, OH. It was on the shores of Lake Erie that his passion for marine forecasting was born.
In the wake of the Edmund Fitzgerald disaster, the Weather Service launched the Great Lakes Research Center. Johnson was responsible for writing the ice forecasts for one of the only places in the world to experience lake-effect snow.
During his early days with the weather service, Johnson and his wife, Georgian, were busy raising four kids – all of whom are now grown with their own families. He also earned his pilot’s license and served in a civilian capacity with the Army Corps of Engineers before the Air National Guard came knocking.
He monitored Hurricane Katrina from the Pentagon and knows legendary Monroe County Emergency Manager Billy Wagner and FEMA Director Craig Fugate from his days in Jacksonville. In addition to his duties with the National Weather Service, Johnson served as staff and command meteorologist for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and as a meteorologist assistant to the U.S. Air Force director of weather.
Most recently, Johnson oversaw domestic weather forecasts as the Branch Chief at NOAA’s Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
When the post at the Key West Weather Service became available earlier this year, Johnson and his wife jumped at the chance to return to the Sunshine State.
“My wife loves Florida and is thrilled to no end,” he said.
He cited other factors, including a new facility, the chance to get back with Florida Emergency Management and “last, but most important, the office has a very professional group of forecasters and staff.”
Even though Johnson is replacing Matt Strahan, a beloved weatherman who saw the Keys through several severe storm seasons, his staff recognizes the invaluable expertise their new boss brings to the weather center.
“He appreciates the sensitivities of an evacuation,” said Warning Coordination Meteorologist Jon Rizzo. “He has a lot of experience with hurricanes and forecasting the marine environment. Basically…he knows his job and knows emergency management.”
“We provide forecasts and warnings for the protection and life of property to the enhancement of the nation’s economy,” Johnson said. “The primary reason we are here in Key West is to protect life.”
Now that he is retired from the armed service, Johnson is going to figure out his hobbies. He enjoys fishing, and said, “I need to learn to play golf. I think that would be good.”
He also plans on volunteering in the community and joining Florida’s Emergency Management Association.
Fred Johnson, with his extensive experience, leadership and communication skills, will continue to assure the best weather services for the residents and many visitors to Key West and surrounding areas.
– Bill Proenza, U.S. National Weather Service Regional Director