2018-02-22 / Science

Meet the man behind the weather in Va.

The Virginian-Pilot


It was sunny and clear, not a cloud in the sky.

But inside the little brick building that sits inconspicuously on the side of U.S. 460, Jeff Orrock wasn’t feeling it.

Beautiful weather means administrative duties, and his job is far more fun when storms kick up and the sky falls, when it snows or hurricanes threaten the coast.

He’d much rather be the weatherman.

“Say we get a big winter storm,” said Orrock, 46, the “meteorologist-in-charge” for the National Weather Service’s Wakefield office. “We’ll get into our battle rhythm. Forecasting, sending out briefings, conference calls with emergency management teams, establishing advisories and warnings.

“Everybody really perks up. It’s our job to balance the science with the service we provide. Knowing that you’re impacting the important decisions. We take that seriously.”

When weather hits Virginia, as it did during a blizzard in January, Orrock’s voice is everywhere — quoted in the newspaper, filling press releases, notifying the region’s emergency agencies.

He manages a team of 20 that includes 16 forecasters. His team analyzes terabytes of information that streams in from all corners of the world via the Wakefield satellite and two sets of fiber optic cable. The crew oversees weather for a large swath of eastern Virginia, parts of Maryland and portions of northeastern North Carolina.

Because of the way weather systems converge and form in the mid-Atlantic region, the Wakefield staff deals with unique conditions that make it one of the most challenging forecasting sites in the country.

“I set the expectations for how we do things,” Orrock said, “and we’ve got a great crew here that really gets into what we do.”

Orrock grew up on the outskirts of Richmond and became interested in the weather during family trips to Virginia Beach.

After graduating from Midlothian High School in 1990, he struggled to find a college that offered a degree in meteorology. No schools in Virginia had a weather program at the time. So he considered alternatives.

“I had taken some drafting classes in high school, and I almost went into architecture,” he said.

But he didn’t. Orrock headed south to Florida State University and stuck with weather. He paid part of his tuition by working architecture jobs at the school. When he graduated, the National Weather Service was starting an agency-wide metamorphosis, and the Pensacola, Florida, office was looking for young talent.

A rush of new technology was opening up employment opportunities. Orrock liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor of what promised to be a new era in forecasting.

“This was before the internet was ramping up, and the (weather) service was replacing all of its 1957 and 1974 radars,” Orrock said. “The equipment was crazy old and they were modernizing and restructuring. Lots of positions opened up and many of the older forecasters were retiring.

“It was good timing.”

Orrock bounced around several agency offices and got a taste of weather adrenaline with hurricanes such as Erin and Opal, both in 1995.

His career would take on a new meaning when he arrived at the office in San Antonio, Texas, and began researching tornadoes and flooding — eventually writing several papers on both.

“I got a passion for relating the weather to things outside the office. I had some good mentors who taught me the importance of using the science in our outreach,” Orrock said.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, he became the warning coordinator, briefing state agencies, power companies and town governments on incoming severe weather.

In 2011, the Wakefield job opened up and he jumped at the chance to return to Virginia, where he’s continued to leave his mark.

Living in Smithfield with wife Kim and daughters Emily and Elizabeth, Orrock is enjoying where his love of weather has taken him. He said he’s “a typical toy-loving guy,” keeping his boat docked next to his dad’s, taking the girls out on Jet Skis and riding his motorcycle to work when the weather is nice.

His openness and teacher-like mentality have endeared him to many people he works with.

“I’ve dealt with Jeff since he first came here,” said Jim Redick, director of Norfolk’s Emergency Management Division. “The entire region has gotten to know him very well.” Emergency personnel across the region know they can build plans around his forecasts because they’re the best around, he said.

“When I go to conferences elsewhere, they’re really surprised when I tell them about how great he is. I can’t imagine a better relationship.”

Orrock is excited about where forecasting is headed.

As the service constantly makes improvements to its second generation of Advanced Weather Interaction Processing System, opportunities for better forecasting for marine interests are opening. Wind, flooding and storms can have a big impact on how the Port of Virginia operates.

“It’s a huge issue around here,” Orrock said. “Our port has built a real model that the Coast Guard is trying to use everywhere else in the country.”

Rick Wester, captain of the port, said having a guy like Orrock around has been critical to operations.

“We all have a love affair with Jeff,” Wester said. “He’s been a huge help to us and the entire port.”

When severe weather sets its sights on our region, Orrock takes part in conference calls for a couple dozen agencies throughout the Chesapeake Bay, including pilots’ associations for Virginia and Maryland.

“Jeff starts us off with his predictions,” Wester said. “He always has lots of detail and he’s ready to answer any and all questions thrown at him. Based on his information, we make the call to restrict or close the port. His information is critical because we’re talking about millions of dollars in commerce every day, and we need to know how long we can expect the impact.”

Orrock doesn’t take the responsibility lightly.

“We try to be humble, but we take great pride in nailing a forecast,” he said. “And we nail aspects of every storm. Sure, you can always pick something apart if you want to. But nowadays, we rarely get it wrong.

“It’s important for us to get it between the goal posts. If it’s not right down the middle, we look at it and see why. There’s always going to be critics, but as weather forecasters, I think we do a pretty darned good job.”

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