MIAMI — Robert Burpee, a prominent hurricane scientist who served for two years as director of the National Hurricane Center, died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 65.
Colleagues said Burpee died at 5:40 a.m. at Mercy Hospital in Miami. He suffered from pneumonia and a variety of other ailments, they said. He had been under treatment and frequently hospitalized for several years.
Burpee was in charge of the hurricane center from July 1995 to August 1997, when he requested reassignment because of health problems and was succeeded by Jerry Jarrell.
"We're saddened by the loss and offer our condolences to his family," said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the center in West Miami-Dade County. "He was a great asset to the National Hurricane Center and to the meteorological community. He will be missed."
During his tenure there, Burpee was known for his rock-solid adherence to the data, and his sometimes-stolid appearances on television. He was not the sort of person who gravitated to the spotlight.
"I'm not a performer," he told The Miami Herald in 1995. "I'm not trying to act like a performer. I'm trying to act like a meteorologist."
It was no act.
"He was one of the most brilliant, one of the most ethical persons I have ever met," said Judy Drucker, the well-known impresario, who was close with Burpee for many years. "He took me into a whole new world, the world of science."
Educated at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Burpee quickly emerged as a leading — and courageous — hurricane scientist, flying through the eyes of storms more than 260 times aboard hurricane hunter aircraft.
Soft-spoken and precise, he served for many years as a researcher and director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division on Virginia Key, where he helped pioneer the incorporation of aircraft-collected data into hurricane forecasts.
One major contribution: Burpee's idea to fly research jets in the environment that surrounds hurricanes, adding that information to computerized forecast models.
"Studies show a 10 percent to 15 percent improvement in track forecasts when the jet data is ingested," said Max Mayfield, who retired in January as the hurricane center's director. "Everyone living in hurricane-prone communities in the United States owes thanks to Bob Burpee for this tremendous contribution."
Burpee also conducted important early studies on the role played in hurricane development by tropical waves from Africa and on the Florida sea breeze, responsible for South Florida's daily afternoon showers and thunderstorms during the summer.
News of Burpee's death spread quickly around the NOAA facility on Virginia Key, casting a cloud over employees. He had counseled many of them during times of personal turmoil.
"It's a sad day for us here," said Howard Friedman, the research division's deputy director. "We were like his family and he had a very positive effect on a lot of these folks."
Burpee is survived by a brother, Richard Burpee, and a sister, Nancy Cutter.
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