Michelle Mainelli was only 8 years old when the Great Blizzard of 1978 dumped more than 2 feet of snow on Providence, R.I., shutting down her elementary school for three weeks.
“My parents wouldn’t let me out of the house at first. … It was the coolest thing ever,” said Mainelli, recalling the event that sparked her interest in weather.
Mainelli’s passion for meteorology paid off in a big way Wednesday: 33 years after she went to work as an intern for the National Weather Service, the agency announced that Mainelli will take over as its No. 2 boss next month.
“It is pretty darn awesome and spectacular, I can tell you that,” she said in an interview. “This is just incredibly exciting.”
As she prepares for her new post, Mainelli said she wants NWS to do a better job helping people who are getting caught off guard by an increasing number of extreme weather events.
That will involve trying to find new ways to get the public to pay attention to storm warnings.
“I would say we need to definitely up our game,” she said. “And we’re doing that as part of our key initiatives for our communication and how we message the impacts of an event. We can have a perfect forecast and we are spot on, but you will still see an incredible loss of life.”
Mainelli, 53, will become the agency’s new permanent deputy director on Nov. 5, helping oversee a workforce of more than 4,200 and an annual budget that hit $1.36 billion this year. She has served as the acting deputy director since April, when she replaced Mary Erickson, who retired after working more than 40 years for the federal government.
Mainelli will also become a top official in an agency that’s predominantly white and male. Women comprise just 23.5 percent of the workforce, which is also 84 percent white, according to NWS data. About 5 percent of the workforce is Black, while Asians and Hispanics account for 4 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
Overall staffing levels have long been a concern at NWS, both for employees and many members of Congress.
As of mid-September, NWS had 4,228 employees, far short of its funded staffing target of 4,450, according to the agency’s hiring data.
Mainelli said the service, which is part of NOAA, is “always trying to hire” but has not been able to keep pace with staff departures.
“As soon as we hire and bring folks on, we’re losing folks. That’s what we’re seeing,” Mainelli said. “Whether folks are retiring, or honestly it goes into that cycle of some folks getting burned out, once we hire folks, we want them to stay in our agency.”
While meteorology has traditionally been a male-dominated field, Mainelli said: “We’re getting better.” Agency officials noted that the percentage of female employees at the agency had ticked up slightly from a few years ago, when it was below 20 percent.
Diversity: ‘I can’t say it enough’
The weather service is also trying to get more people of color to apply for jobs, following the lead of NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, who has made diversity a top priority since President Joe Biden tapped him for the position in 2021.
As part of its work, the agency is working with universities and colleges to try to get more students enrolled in earth science programs, while top officials have also engaged in direct recruiting by attending conferences and the like.
Mainelli said the issue will be “a focus and priority” as she starts her new assignment.
“I can’t say it enough: We need our offices to represent the communities that we serve,” she said.
Mainelli said she’ll also be focused on a 10-year strategic plan for the agency.
“It’s the shortest strategic plan we’ve ever had,” she said. “It is focused on three things: our people, our infrastructure and our future. And it all ties in together.”
Among other things, Mainelli said she wants the agency to have transparent communication with its workforce and to emphasize employee wellness so that all workers feel as though “we’re lifting each other up.”
She said the agency’s infrastructure must also be “mobile, nimble and flexible” to help workers better do their jobs.
Growing up in Providence, R.I., Mainelli said she always favored math and science over subjects such as English and history. She called her father “a gadget person” who kept weather instruments on the roof of their house, helping further propel her interest in meteorology.
Mainelli, who has meteorology degrees from both St. Louis University and the University of Miami, has been with NOAA since 1990, when she served as a meteorologist intern in St. Louis.
In 2006, she became the first female hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, where she worked for 15 years. She joined NWS headquarters in 2016 and most recently served as the director of the Office of Dissemination.
Mainelli also called herself “a proud, proud mom.” She’s married and has two daughters, a 24-year-old who teaches in Tampa, Fla., and a 12-year-old who likes soccer and ballet, among other activities.
As she gears up for her new post, Mainelli called it “the most exciting time” of her career at NWS, with the agency seeking to transform itself and take on a more “community-centric approach” to help the public prepare for extreme weather.
“Look at me, I’m in my 33rd year of working at the National Weather Service, and I love every second of it,” she said. “I wake up every day and I enjoy what I do. It’s an honor to just serve the workforce of the National Weather Service and our country.”