Scholars tell us that the ancient Greeks had two words for the English word time. The first was khronos (or chronos in the Latin). It refers to sequential or chronological time…what we get from a clock. The second is kairos, meaning the right or opportune moment, a time when something special happens. [The Wikipedia link above tells us that in the New Testament, kairos means “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” You often see it linked to the Latin phrase, carpe diem, meaning literally “seize the day.” You can find an example and some interesting commentary here.]
Are you married? Think back to your wedding day. Are you an American adult? Then you experienced kairos on September 11, 2001. Kairos can come in different flavors, but it’s always meaningful.
And if you’re a National Weather Service employee, then chances are good you see this Memorial Day weekend as a kairos moment. Dr. John (Jack) Hayes, the Director of the National Weather Service, stepped down. His Deputy Director, Laura Furgione, has been named to act in his place. At the same time the Department of Commerce issued an investigative report suggesting that the NWS had misallocated funds in 2010 and 2011. This news comes on the heels of a separate Department of Commerce IG report finding that the agency did not provide proper justification for performance awards made to certain private contractors. Even the weather got into the act. Hurricane/Tropical Storm Beryl hit the Georgia coast, on the eve of NOAA/NWS Hurricane Center Director Bill Read’s retirement, and transition to Richard Knabb of The Weather Channel as his replacement.
In the days to come, the media may provide more background on the reports coming out of Commerce and continue to draw attention to the coincident timing of Director Hayes’ resignation. [For what it’s worth, Dr. Hayes had been rumored to be telling friends of his intent to step down in this time frame as far back as two years ago. Viewed in that light, the timing of his resignation looks more unfortunate than significant. The early news reports don’t suggest personal gain for any individuals; instead they paint a picture of an agency and its personnel struggling to manage in a complex, constrained environment.]
Given the difficult funding environment for NWS and for NOAA as a whole, NWS employees might be forgiven for feeling stressed and put upon, or for wondering what on earth might happen next. No doubt the short term will be challenging at all levels from the shift forecasters and interns up to the NWS and even NOAA leadership.
But the kairos of the situation invites something else: A recommitment of purpose. The vision to see in these setbacks opportunity for strengthening the science and the management of the National Weather Service. To build on the good forecast and service of the past several years (apparently never in question here) and make that performance even better. To build the nation’s weather readiness.
On this Memorial Day weekend, with the Rolling Thunder in Washington, DC, and with all the speeches and remembrance, perhaps it’s fitting to recall that the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam – a low point – was the occasion for great soul-searching within the United States military…and that out of that kairos moment came a decade or so later the markedly improved military capabilities demonstrated in the first and second Persian Gulf Wars and since.
The National Weather Service and its larger community can achieve a similar turnaround.
In fact, that’s the forecast.
Coincidentally, we’re told that kairos also means weather in both ancient and modern Greek.