Keeping his eye on the hurricane

NOAA's Hernandez tries to move agency's Web site beyond mere forecasts

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Hurricane Isabel wreaked havoc on several million people along the East Coast and eventually shut down the federal government. But during that week in mid-September, Greg Hernandez was one of the busiest federal employees.

As editor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Web site, www.noaa.gov, Hernandez is solely responsible for the content posted on the agency's Web site.

Normally, this wouldn't be a problem. But the emergency weather situation translated into updating the site throughout the week as the storm approached land.

"During Isabel, I don't think I slept more than four hours a night," Hernandez said. "I like to make the joke that NOAA gets a good deal in having just one person run an agency Web site."

NOAA, a branch of the Commerce Department, has entrusted its site to him since 1997.

Throughout Isabel's assault, Hernandez posted updated information from the agency's National Hurricane Center, as well as satellite images, tracking predictions and forecasts. He also wrote copy for news stories concerning Isabel and affected regions during the week.

Greg Hernandez file

Title: Online editor, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, since 1997.

Age: 49

Personal: Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and currently resides in Falls Church, Va., with wife, Debra, and 2-year-old daughter, Sophie.

Education: Syracuse University, class of 1976, B.S. in communications.

Previous career highlight: ABC News Radio, news writer, reporter, producer, 1984 to 1994.

Hobbies: Rooting for the New York Yankees, doing aerobics and playing with Sophie.


Though the continuous updates are not required by his job description, the former ABC Radio news reporter gladly responded to the call of duty.

"This was obviously a major event for the Eastern Seaboard, and I'm very happy that in representing NOAA, we provided a service that people seemed to rely on," Hernandez said. "There are a lot of hours involved where you want to sit back and relax, but you can always feel the call in the background, that the Web site's waiting for more info. The only thing that could have knocked me down was a lack of sleep."

"NOAA.gov was never made to be [updated] 24/7, but I turned it into that entity because I take it beyond the forecast," he continued. "I try to give people a comprehensive view of the situation each time I post a new story."

Millions of people saw his comprehensive coverage, as indicated by the Web site's record number of hits during the week Isabel made landfall.

From Sept. 16 to 20, the site registered more than 333 million hits, and peaked at more than 3,000 hits per second on the 18th — the day Isabel reached land in North Carolina and Virginia. That day, the site peaked at more than 9.5 million hits per hour and totaled approximately 103.4 million total hits.

By comparison, the site receives approximately 1.8 million hits on a "nonhurricane" day, according to Hernandez.

To accommodate the heavy increase in traffic during Isabel, NOAA officials negotiated a temporary agreement for more bandwidth from Akamai Technologies Inc.

The increased bandwidth prevented the Web site from coming to a stop as it did during Hurricane Bonnie in 1998.

"The demand for NOAA data was astronomical," said Carl Straton, the agency's CIO.

"He worked tirelessly over the weekend to ensure the data were posted," he said. NOAA updates the Web site four times a day, and Hernandez was there around the clock getting the information out, Straton said.

According to Dan Berkowitz, Keynote's spokesman, NOAA's site measured response times in the one- to four-second range, and showed "tremendous resiliency in maintaining high availability."

Hernandez said his radio news background — which includes coverage of the first Gulf War — has helped him immensely since arriving in the agency's media relations department in 1995.

He has managed an endless number of media requests during events throughout his tenure. Before Isabel, Hernandez had handled several high-profile situations, including the search for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s airplane, which a NOAA ship located after the plane crashed off the coast of Martha's Vinyard in 1999.

But it is his work during Isabel that has brought Hernandez into the technology spotlight. By going beyond the call of duty and providing updates on an easy-to-navigate Web site, he helped countless people stay informed during a critical situation.

"It's a very serious business and I treat it as that," he said.

Hernandez should be praised for his dedication, but don't just call him a Webmaster.

"I prefer 'online editor' because I'm doing more than just technical stuff," he said. "It encompasses a larger view of the Web site."

"Whenever I hear 'Webmaster', I always think of Darth Vader from 'Star Wars,' " Hernandez continued. "I don't have a black cloak ... when I'm doing this stuff from home late at night with the storm, I'm basically in my pajamas just trying to get stuff done."

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