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Living, Talking Time Capsules: Oral Histories and the NWS Heritage Project

Living, Talking Time Capsules: Oral Histories and the NWS Heritage Project

By Emily Senesac (emily.senesac@noaa.gov)

The NWS Heritage Projects were founded on the principle that understanding the past is critical to comprehending the present and, even more importantly, inspires our future. Photos, documents, and artifacts create a tangible, physical connection between past and present, but there is another, even more personal means of forming those links: oral histories.

An oral history is a living, talking time capsule, preserving so much more than just a series of events.  Not only does an oral history capture what happened or what happened next -- it captures what it meant to the narrator. The NWS Heritage Projects Team, working in conjunction with the NOAA 50th Anniversary Team, has been collecting oral histories from agency employees, both past and present, who witnessed times of great change at the National Weather Service. Whether it be a monumental weather event,  a global catalyst, or a technological advancement, these stories provide an invaluable insight into our history. 

The first of these oral histories was from Dr. Edward Johnson, the former director of Strategic Planning and Policy for the National Weather Service. Johnson, who retired in 2015, also spent a considerable part of his NWS career with the Office of Hydrology. “The Weather Service predicts the weather, but they also predict floods,” Johnson explains. “It’s a different challenge. I thought it was so fascinating.” Regaling tales of the Nixon-era agency restructuring, the historic Red River Flood, and the concept of a Weather-Ready Nation, Johnson’s testimonial provides a glimpse into the history of the National Weather Service. 

When asked to describe the meteorologists and employees of the National Weather Service, Johnson remarks “They’re tough, and (are) just walk-through-a-brick-wall dedicated to the mission.” 

Visit the NOAA 50th Anniversary website for more about Johnson and his fascinating career. You can also hear his full oral history recording and view a transcript here. Stay tuned for more oral histories coming soon!