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Hurricane Katrina--Looking Back to Look Ahead

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:40 PM GMT on January 23, 2008

I'm in New Orleans this week for the 88th annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society, the world's largest gathering of meteorologists. This year's meeting has a special focus on Hurricane Katrina. Yesterday's session: "Hurricane Katrina--Looking Back to Look Ahead" sought to review what happened during Katrina with an aim to improve our ability to prepare for the inevitable next "Big One". The keynote speaker was former National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield. He took the audience back through those painful days in late August 2005 as Katrina exploded into one of the most intense hurricanes ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, forever altering the lives of those caught in its path.

Katrina could have been much worse
Max reviewed the forecasts issued by the NHC for Katrina, showing how these predictions gave a full 2 1/2 days for New Orleans and Mississippi to prepare for the onslaught of a major hurricane. "I don't want people to think we're going to be able to do that well all the time," he said. "One of these days, people will go to bed with a Category 1 hurricane expected to hit the next day, and wake up to a Katrina or an Andrew. That will be a catastrophe." Max stressed the importance of not focusing on the skinny black line showing the forecast track of a storm--pay attention instead to the cone of possible landfall locations. Better communication and education to the public on hurricane dangers are needed, and he encouraged all coastal residents to participate in National Hurricane Preparedness Week, May 25-31 of this year.

Figure 1. The exhibit hall from the 2008 meeting of the American Meteorological Society in New Orleans.

How do we change the outcome?
Max showed that while errors in hurricane track forecasts have improved a factor of two in the past 15 years, and are now down to 55 miles for a 24-hour forecast, forecasts of intensity have not improved at all. In fact, the intensity forecasts for 2007 were worse than those of 2005 and 2006. Part of the credit for the improvement in track forecasts goes to a $1 million/year research project called the Joint Hurricane Test-bed--a project former NHC director Bill Proenza called attention to when it received budget cuts. An increase in funding for this program, as well as other hurricane research efforts, are needed to help improve hurricane intensity forecasts, Max urged.

Another way to change the outcome would be through the adoption of improved building codes. Adoption of the tough South Florida building codes all along the coast would save lives and cut down on insurance pay-outs. Max brought up the analogy of a airplane crashing due to a defect in manufacture. When investigators find the cause of the defect, immediate steps are taken to ensure that no airplane is ever built again with that defect. Why, then, do we continue to build houses with known defects? He advocated the formation of a National Disaster Review Board to analyze and adopt new building codes for the coast. This board would consist of meteorologists, emergency managers, and representatives from the insurance and building industries.

Final thoughts on being in New Orleans
Max recounted his own sobering tour of the damaged neighborhoods still devastated more than two years after Katrina. My own experience here was also sobering, as this is my first visit since the hurricane. It felt eerie to stalk the halls of the Convention Center, the site of so much pain and suffering in the aftermath of the storm. I was very conscious of being in the bottom of a bowl everywhere I went within the city, and the damaged, shuttered buildings were a constant reminder that the Gulf of Mexico lay at our doorstep--and would someday send another "Big One" to challenge the city's defenses. Yet many of the people I met have adapted to the post-Katrina life with an admirable stoicism. "They don't call New Orleans the Big Easy for nothing", one cab driver told me. "Life is still good and laid-back here".

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.