Just call him the weather ambassador
Ask meteorologist Wayne Neely anything about hurricanes in the North Atlantic, and the surprise comes if he doesn’t have a ready answer.
“They’re fascinating because of the damages they cause,”he said of the storms that have filled his mind and his books.
“They’re amazing to look at when you look at them by satellite. You stand in awe of those great storms. People just stand in awe of the might of these storms.”
For the past eight years Neely, 40, has compiled a wealth of data on the phenomena, making him an expert in demand. He has given talks on the gales of the centuries as far away as China and as close to home as the local fifth grade class.
Last August found him imparting his hurricane knowledge to students at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts. His schedule for 2011 includes speaking engagements in the U.S. and Mexico, and the release of another tome through a major publisher in the summer. His latest book,”The Great Bahamian Hurricane of 1866″, is due out this month.
Yet Neely remains humbled.
“To see my name actually on Amazon.com is still amazing. I could only chalk it up to God. I could never imagine my book being sold all around the world,”he said.
The author’s last four books”The Major Hurricanes to Affect The Bahamas”,”Rediscovering Hurricanes: Hurricanes of the North Atlantic”,”The Great Bahamian Hurricanes of 1926″are all available online. Funding from a cohort of local businesses has allowed Neely to write and publish at least one book a year since becoming an author. Local publishing company Media Enterprises published his first book,”The Great Bahamian Hurricane of 1929″, in 2005.
“We encouraged him to go ahead and publish it, which he did, and then the first printing sold out quite quickly,”said Neil Sealey, director and partner at Media Enterprises, who had taught Neely Geography and Climatology at the College of The Bahamas years before.
“The Great Bahamian Hurricane of 1929″was easy enough to write. Neely worked from inspiration that colored his perceptions about hurricanes long before writing about them had ever crossed his mind. He had heard stories about devastating hurricanes throughout his childhood in South Andros from people who were old enough to remember when a barometer was the only warning a fisherman had of a brewing storm.
“I was amazed at hearing them talk about how many people died in these storms,”he said.
Other hardships awaited those whom death had spared.
“Hurricanes would destroy their harvest and they said they would starve for months. Hurricanes would destroy their homes; they had to rebuild and everything.”
A walking record of death toll statistics and damage estimations, Neely is more than an encyclopedia of storm facts. He is a gatekeeper of memories for survivors, many of whom have already died leaving nothing but their stories of grit and determination behind.
“I interviewed older persons,”said Neely.”I interviewed hundreds of persons about Bahamian hurricanes, including Sir Clifford Darling, Sir Orville Turnquest and A. D. Hanna.”
The meteorologist’s research and interviews took him throughout the archipelago. At times, the people who had opened their homes to him would cry during their recollections.
“I realized that…for these people to cry many, many years later, this storm must have been really impactful.”
Neely nutured his interest in the weather since his days of hearing the stories of those who had lived through them as a boy. He studied Geography and History at the College of The Bahamas in 1989, and fell in love with a Climatology and Bio Geography course that would pave the way for his future career.
“We had to go out and take the weather, measure the windspeed and direction, get the air temperature and pressure every day, twice a day,”he remembered.
Neely joined the Department of Meteorology a year later as a weather observer. There he worked his way through the ranks while continuing his education in the field. He studied at the Caribbean Meteorological Institute in Barbados in 1992, shortly after fielding Hurricane Andrew, one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit The Bahamas in recent memory.
“I remember I worked that hurricane and I worked with meteorologist Basil Dean at the time,”Neely recalled. A change of course in the storm previously expected to bypass The Bahamas thrust the young meteorological assistant into one of the most intense moments of his career.
Neely recalled Dean’s warning that the hurricane would be a bad one.”And sure enough Hurricane Andrew was one of the most devastating hurricanes to impact The Bahamas,”he said.
By the late 1990s a now senior Neely had worked at least two more major hurricanes. Their profiles have been burned into his memory.
“Floyd was a large storm and a very wet storm,”he said of the 1999 gale.
Of its 2001 cousin Hurricane Michelle, he remembered similar characteristics,”Michelle was a very wet storm. It was actually one of the wettest storms on record.”
A year later Neely officially embarked on his research and writing career. The information he gathered from the elderly eye-witnesses to the 1929 Hurricane quickly became a book.
His writings have honored and helped to preserve a priceless oral tradition of recounting history.
“[Wayne Neely]makes things interesting when he writes and he’s got a subject which is very topical. Every year we have a hurricane season and some years we have the actual hurricanes,”said Sealey, who placed Neely among historical writers like Dr. Gail Saunders in his efforts to record Bahamian meteorological history.
“He’s collected a whole lot of oral material which as people die off is not available unless someone does it, so it’s a real service to the history of the country.”
Though employed full-time at the Department of Meteorology, Neely continued to find time to write books that have become valuable resources for a region that braces for the threat of hurricanes each year.
“Wayne has made history in the Department by being the first to author books of that nature and to make such an impression,”said senior climatological officer Arnold King of his colleague.
Neely, said King, is”strongly admired by many.”