ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: BC graduate Chuck Watson '79 is a man of many (international) hats

By Noell Barnidge
Chuck Watson, Benedictine Military School Class of 1979, is a geophysicist and the founder and Director of Research and Development of Enki Holdings, LLC.

Watson, who possesses an endearingly sarcastic sense of humor, named Enki Research for the Sumerian god of mischief and seawater. At Enki Research, Watson designs computer models for weather phenomena including tropical cyclones/hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, as well as anthropogenic hazards such as terrorism and industrial accidents. Enki’s models and outputs are used by governments throughout the world.

Watson, 60, has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio, Bloomberg News, CNBC, MSNBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and other global news outlets. He and his wife, Vickie, a physics teacher at St. Vincent’s Academy, reside in Savannah.

How did you decide to pursue a career after graduating from Benedictine?

“After BC, I went to Georgia Tech and then on to part of a military project, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), with the University of Maryland. From that, I ended up with one of those kind of hybrid things where it was sort of military and had agencies like Defense Intelligence Agency, and other three letters, that it gets kind of fuzzy between what you’re actually working on and doing. I did that and I was self-detached duty with the State Department for a while. I ran secure SatCom (satellite communication) for a number of the Middle East diplomatic missions, as well as other kinds of activities in the Middle East. Eventually, I just got tired of being shot at. It turns out, people in the Middle East don’t care much for Americans. Don’t know why. I was in Lebanon, it was exactly 40 years ago coming up, we just had the 40th anniversary of the embassy being bombed. I walked out of the embassy just before it was hit by a bomb. It killed everybody in the CIA station there. Nobody could decide if I had good luck or bad luck because I had just left them, dropping off some materials at the Marine compound in October of ’83 when it got hit by a truck bomb. I was in Chad on a mission where there was a Libyan invasion going on. This, of course, was during the Soviet era, and walked into the U.S. – we called it an interest section, that’s the technical term for it – and I just walked out of that, and it got hit by an artillery shell. I got hurt in all those instances but, obviously, nothing catastrophic other than repeated head injuries. After a while, I’d walk out of a building and there would be a crowd following, waiting for something bad to happen. I was in a plane crash in Lebanon. I say crash. I’m sure the pilot would call it a hard landing but when the landing gear gets punched up through the wing because you hit (the ground) so hard, umm, I’d call that a crash. Actually, the guy did a brilliant job. The approach to Beirut comes in over one of the big Palestinian refugee camps. Somebody lit off a man-pad (man-portable), one of the handheld surface-to-air-missiles, at us and so he did a really brilliant job of getting the airplane on the ground without making a hole in the ground. I’m sure from the standpoint of the airplane mechanics and guys like that it was bad but for us it was a pretty good deal. But, again, that kind of wears on you after a while. Plus, the Soviet Union collapsed in the early ’90s, just as we were studying the Soviets and their activities. And it’s like, well, what do you do now?

Your experiences sound like something out of a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie. What did you do upon returning to the United States?

“I ended up doing, mostly as a consultant, designing the initial GIS (geographic information system) 911 system for Hilton Head. I came back here for a while to try to figure out what to do next. I was still doing a lot of consulting work with various government agencies while I tried to sort that out. Anyone that works in government and around government knows that the relationship between government, and contractors, and consultants, gets kind of amorphous, fuzzy, and complicated at times. And so, I ended up doing work through the U.S. Agency for International Development with the Organization of American States. It was kind of odd because I had a U.S. diplomatic passport. I had an OAS (Organization of American States) passport. I had a U.N. passport. That work ended up being mostly in the realm of what we call natural and anthropogenic hazards, which is a very fancy way of saying it turns out that the forces that knock down buildings and break things, whether it’s a hurricane or an explosion or an earthquake, the forces on the building, the physics of it, the physical forces on these structures and infrastructure, it turns out there’s a lot of overlap between these different fields. It’s basically engineering statics combined with physics and natural sciences. When you combine it with how you collect data and study these events using satellite remote sensing and numerical models, it’s not something that you can go and get a degree in somewhere. It’s something that you basically end up lurching into because of your various experiences with other things. By the mid-to-late ’90s, I was in a really interesting position because the Cold War was over and a lot of the U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as the former Soviet agencies, now Russian, were starting to declassify a lot of information in the hopes that it would help with things like climate change studies and natural hazards, and basically put all of those massive resources into maybe saving some people instead of trying to kill them. Which is unusual because usually we want to do the other thing. The reason I ended up working with a lot of the international agencies and NASA was all these agencies would say, yes, we will give you data. So, people who were doing these studies would say, well, what data can you give us and they would say, well, we can’t tell you that. If you ask for something, we will give it to you. Well, I knew what to ask for because I had been on both sides of that fence. I got to work with Roscosmos, which is the Russian Space Agency, because I knew what to ask for. It was really an amazing project in the late ’90s, early 2000s, with the Organization of American States. In the past, to do one island in the Caribbean, to do the computer models, to do hurricane hazard maps, you need to have very good topography and bathymetry. That’s several-million dollars to do one island. I was able to get data from Roscosmos, and declassified U.S. data, and we were able to do the entire Caribbean for about $3 million. I had access to high-resolution data sets and knowing how to use them in the computer model. That project and work extended into the early 2000s.

What was your professional life like after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? How did you end up working with the intelligence community again?

“At that time, a couple of things happened. We just did the 22nd anniversary of 9/11 Monday (Sept. 11, 2023). I was teaching a class for the Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico the day before. I was on my way back to the U.S. and was at the airport in San Juan, watching CNN when the first airplane hit (the World Trade Center). And then the second one and, of course, the Pentagon. By then, at least I knew, OK, nobody is going anywhere. They’re going to shut down the airspace. I ended up being in Puerto Rico for three or four days until I could get another government flight. I was on the first airplane to leave San Juan that was allowed back into the U.S. after 9/11. You want to talk about war stories? It’s kind of funny because there had been no air traffic in San Juan, so the iguanas had taken over all the runways and taxiways. They were like, hey, this is great. This is our spot. We can go sun ourselves. Being on the first airplane out, we’re looking out and we’re like, we can’t go anywhere. There are all these big lizards in the way. They had to get a truck to go and drive in front of us to shoo – these guys in a pickup (truck) would jump out and shoo all these lizards out of the way; some of them were pretty big and they did not want to go. So we get out on the runway. We’re getting ready to take off but we can’t go because they had run a truck down the runway to get them out of the way, so they scampered off but as soon as the truck was at the other end of the runway, they just got right back out. Then they had to get two trucks and cycle them down the runway to keep them off long enough for us to get out. From what I understand, it took a couple of days of regular traffic before the monitors (lizards) got the idea that our sunspot has been stolen again. It was a mess. I got the last GSA (General Services Administration) car. I finally managed to get one out of the GSA pool in Miami so I could drive home because there were still no internal U.S. flights going. I ended up after 9/11, because I had been in Iraq back when we and Iraq were, nominally, allies, I knew people in the region, and I knew the data and also had the contacts with Roscosmos, I ended working with the Navy on a number of projects getting ready for the invasion of Iraq. I was in the early development of what we now call Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). In 2003, that wasn’t nearly as much of a thing as it is now. I was asked to put together an unclassified briefing for some Naval reserve units. At the time, everybody’s clearances were backlogged. I still had my clearance but a lot of these guys who were being called up in the reserves, they didn’t have clearances. They asked me to put together a briefing for them using Open-Source Intelligence data. I put it together, sent it in, and a couple of days later, I get this call saying, ‘Hey, we need you on a secure phone.’ So, I go hauling over to Hunter (Army Airfield) and the guys at the other end said, ‘The CIA classified your briefing because it was better than their classified briefing.’

What are you working on now?

“The world we live in now is really interesting because there is so much data and so much information that the line between what you can discover and learn in the classified world versus what you can in the unclassified world is, the problem now is we’ve got such a glut of information. Probably half of it is bogus. So how do you then interpret it? And that’s where a lot of my work, recently, has been. I don’t do as much of the spooky stuff or the government stuff directly. It’s more open source for various clients. Some of it is government agencies and politicians, stuff like that, but a lot of it boils down to how you sort out what’s real and what isn’t. That’s become increasingly difficult, particularly in the last five-to-10 years. People around here mostly see the hurricane work, which is probably about half of what I do. I’ve got a call here in about 20 minutes. We’re working on projects in Africa. If you’ve seen the catastrophic flooding in Libya that’s happened in the last couple of days, we’re working on a project in the southeastern part of Africa, Madagascar, Mozambique. They get hit by hurricanes just like we do. They call them cyclones. But they get hit by them pretty regularly. So, I’m working with the African Union on some projects there to help do something similar to what we did in the Caribbean, just hazard plans and that kind of thing. I did a lot of work with the state of Florida and various insurance departments in North Carolina, Hawaii, Georgia, Florida. And I’ve done work with FEMA. But I’ve mostly worked internationally. The U.S. has such an elaborate, bureaucratic infrastructure between FEMA and state agencies, and then you have county level people, it’s very convoluted, very political. There are an awful lot of turf wars and fiefdoms. I’ll do stuff if people ask me to, but I just try to keep out of it. I have a long relationship with Florida. I worked with the University of Central Florida as a visiting research scientist down there for almost a decade. I’ve worn a lot of different hats. Enki Research is sort of my private company, Enki Holdings, LLC, is my private company. Sometimes I’m representing the USAID and sometimes I’m representing the Organization of American States, and sometimes I’m just representing the University of Central Florida, and sometimes just representing Enki Research. Whichever hat makes sense to wear on any particular project. For instance, if you’re talking about dealing with foreign governments, well, they don’t want someone working for the U.S. government directly to get into their stuff. Which is kind of ironic because it puts you in an awkward position sometimes because people will say, ‘We want to pass a message to the administration’ and I’m like, ‘No, go talk to somebody who works for the administration.’ I’m not going to compromise myself by getting in the middle of your discussions. You do what makes sense in the context.

Recently, you were on Bloomberg News talking about Hurricane Idalia. Do you make appearances on global television networks often?

“I’ve had a long relationship with Bloomberg TV going back to probably 15 years ago, helping them with oil and gas disruption from storms. I’ve tried to cut back on that. I’m really not comfortable with a public profile. I do it sometimes. I’m really not comfortable with a lot of that kind of stuff. That’s just not who I am. I am one of those people who really does best in the shadows. But I still end up on CNBC, MSNBC. Each network tends to think of me as a different hat. With Bloomberg it’s usually natural hazards and economics. MSNBC, when there was a satellite that the U.S. shot down probably 12 years ago, I ended up on there talking about defense stuff. And the BBC has different divisions that call for different things. Yeah, media stuff, I think it’s important to try and get a balanced, nuanced, intelligent message out there. People tell me I’m decent at it but I’m really uncomfortable with it.

What lessons did you learn at Benedictine that have guided you in your life and career?

“There are so many of them. I would probably start with Fr. Mario (who taught Latin) and Fr. Bertrand with the ability to duck, having erasers thrown at you. Learning how to duck is a key skill if you’re going to go and be involved in any kind of international project. In all seriousness, speaking of Fr. Bertrand, and Fr. Wilford, Fr. Bertrand taught biology and Fr. Wilford taught physics. And Sr. Johanna taught chemistry. When I got to college at Georgia Tech, then later at Maryland, taking physics and chemistry courses, it was like, ‘I’ve seen this before.’ The biggest thing that I think is such a tremendous value from a Catholic education, specifically BC, is critical thinking skills. That’s something that is very difficult to teach but Benedictine, both the school and the Order, that’s valued. It’s taught as much by example from the teaching staff as it is as a literal skill. You have to think. You look at personal responsibility. That’s an enormous one. That is something that is less and less a quantity that is taught in the public schools. I can say that authoritatively because my wife taught in public schools for 20-something years and one of her big rants was that she could not really hold her students accountable because she was constantly undercut by the administration. And now, of course, she’s teaching at St. Vincent’s (Academy) and she’s very much happy to be in that environment. You can look at the academics and, whether it’s JROTC or athletics, having an additional component that is beyond the pure academics, having that integrated into the curriculum and having that, the intangibles are so essential. One of the keys to that is personal responsibility … those intangibles and those structures are something you’re not going to get in public school because you’re just not having to be as responsible. That responsibility isn’t on you. To me, that’s one of the biggest … when you get right down to it, you’re talking about formation of character. You can spend all day trying to teach somebody academic stuff but is that going to do them any good later in life? Of course, it is, but only if they’ve got that underlying character that’s been formed, because all the academics in the world, without character, is useless.

Which teacher or coach was influential when you think back to your time at Benedictine?

“As I mentioned, all three in the science, but particularly Fr. Bertrand. Fr. Bertrand was the kind of person who, you hated him at the time. Hate is probably too strong of a word. But he was pretty miserable (to have as a teacher). I was actually passing through Savannah, and I did get to talk to him maybe five years later and got to tell him how much it meant (to have him as a teacher). Getting through his class and being able to learn and memorize, structure your study habits, that served me extremely well all the rest of my life. Even now. The big three for me were the science department at the time, which were Fr. Bertrand, Fr. Wilfred in physics, and Sr. Johanna.

What does the Benedictine brotherhood mean to you?

“It’s weird when you run into BC people in government. I will run into BC alumni in different places. I can’t say a specific name but when you’re in the wiles of Afghanistan and you look at somebody and you’re like, ‘Don’t I know you? Oh, you’re the Class of ’76. Oh, yeah!’ and then you quickly scuttle away from each other because you’re not supposed to know that each of you is there. That is pretty amazing, particularly as you get closer to Savannah. Knowing people in the community and having those connections is important. It’s been helpful for me, just coming back to Savannah and being here full-time, knowing that there’s guys here who you can count on. That’s critical. You’re stuck with these people forever. No, that didn’t come out quite right. There’s that old saying that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. Well, when you do choose to go to BC, you’ve just bought into a family, and you’re stuck with these clowns forever. And there is no way to get rid of them. But you'll never want it any other way."