Mayfield, the Hurricane Center director, set to retire in January

Published 11:16 pm Saturday, August 26, 2006

Max Mayfield said Friday he will retire as director of the National Hurricane Center in January, after overseeing the nation’s tropical storm forecasters and guiding millions of Americans through the busiest, most destructive Atlantic hurricane season on record last year.

“I’m tired. I’ve been here 34 years and I’ve given it all I’ve got,” said Mayfield, comparing it to the way the movie character Forrest Gump felt after running across the country.

Mayfield, 57, has led the hurricane center and its forecasters since May 2000 and will leave in January after the current season ends Nov. 30.

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In addition to monitoring active hurricane seasons, the internationally known forecaster said he has been traveling constantly — at least four out of the six months during the offseason — promoting hurricane preparedness. It’s left very little time for family, said Mayfield.

“I’m gonna take a few months off and do very little,” said Mayfield, who didn’t rule out a possible return to the private sector in the future. “And after that I may end up back in the hurricane program somehow.”

The Miami resident said he planned to spend time with his wife and three grown children and go fishing with friends.

Mayfield is well known to residents in hurricane-prone areas in the U.S. from his countless hours of television interviews.

He and his staff were praised for the dead-on forecasts of last year’s Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history in a season that shattered many records.

Last year, a record 28 named storms and 15 hurricanes formed, well above the average of 11 storms and six hurricanes. Katrina caused several breaches in New Orleans’ levees, submerging much of the city. It also flattened parts of the Mississippi coast. In 2004, Florida was walloped by four hurricanes.

Besides monitoring the storms themselves, Mayfield also oversees hurricane awareness programs in nearly every coastal state, hurricane center spokesman Frank Lepore said. He tirelessly tells anyone who listens of the danger of hurricanes and how important it is to be prepared.

Mayfield announced his retirement during a 1 p.m. staff briefing, but didn’t dwell on it, colleagues said. He was monitoring two active storms in the Atlantic, two more in the Pacific and conducting interviews for a new job at the center.

At a news conference, Mayfield answered questions about his pending retirement, but steered the conversation toward Tropical Storm Ernesto hovering near Puerto Rico.

Speculation has already begun of who the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will tap to fill Mayfield’s $156,000 a year job.

Mayfield praised the hurricane center’s deputy director Ed Rappaport and hoped Rappaport would be a candidate for his job.

Mayfield became well-known after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, when as a hurricane specialist at the center he informed South Florida residents what to expect from the killer storm in his soothing voice with an Oklahoma accent.

Longtime friend and colleague Billy Wagner was at the hurricane center with Mayfield when they got the news that Andrew was rapidly intensifying and heading straight for South Florida.

“Max has always been very, very calm,” said Wagner, who retired in July as senior emergency management director for Monroe County in the Florida Keys. “I’ve never seen panic, but he always was fully aware that it was his responsibility to convey the message if people weren’t reacting sufficiently to (local) public officials, that he ultimately had the responsibility for their constituents.”

Wagner said he couldn’t recall anyone as dedicated to his profession as Mayfield.

Mayfield, who will soon join the ranks of former hurricane directors Neil Frank and Bob Sheets, graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1970 with a degree in mathematics and an appreciation for Sooners football. He joined the U.S. Air Force, but said he was “too blind to fly an airplane,” and became an Air Force meteorologist.

He joined the hurricane center in 1972 as an intern. He became a hurricane specialist in 1988 and a senior hurricane specialist two years later. He was named deputy director of the center in 1998.

Since then, the self-professed introvert has become a household name.

“Max Mayfield has been a steady hand in the Hurricane center and a personal friend for more than 20 years. Max is a national treasure and those of us in the emergency management field will miss him greatly,” said R. David Paulison, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s director and a former fire chief in Miami-Dade County