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In the Eye of Katrina: A Personal Retrospective

By: Bob Henson 7:53 PM GMT on August 25, 2015

There’s a lot to monitor in the tropics right now, including Tropical Storm Erika, now heading toward the Lesser Antilles (see the Jeff Masters post from this morning, and watch for our update later tonight). We're also commemorating the onset of one of the biggest weather stories in U.S. history. Ten years ago today, a storm named Katrina swept into the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, just a few hours after it attained hurricane status. Even if it hadn’t gone on to cause colossal agony and destruction on the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina would be a storm worth remembering. It knocked out power to more than a million people across South Florida, inflicted more than $500 million in damage--mostly to agriculture--and caused 12 deaths. Carving out a cyclonic loop across the southern tip of the state, Katrina held its own as it passed over the swampy terrain, with few ill effects on its structure or intensity from the six-hour trek over land. That left Katrina in a strong position to grow into the Category 5 monster it became over the Gulf of Mexico.

Figure 1. The NHC forecast for Katrina issued at 1700 GMT (11:00 am EDT) on Wednesday, August 24. Image credit: NHC.

I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience on August 25, 2005, of experiencing the passage of a hurricane at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami. For years, as a writer for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, I’d been interested in seeing how the center grapples with forecast challenges and deals with media during a U.S. hurricane landfall. Katrina’s development gave me a chance to fulfill this long-held interest while finding out what it was like to experience a minimal hurricane from a safe vantage point. I arrived in Miami on Tuesday, August 23. My host was long-time friend and colleague Hugh Cobb, then a forecaster at NHC and now head of its Tropical Analysis & Forecast Branch.

At 11:00 am EDT the next morning--Wednesday, August 24--Tropical Depression 12 became Tropical Storm Katrina. NHC correctly predicted that Katrina would strike near Fort Lauderdale as a minimal hurricane the next night, although its subsequent tenacity while over land was underestimated and its Gulf Coast landfall remained almost a week away. Heading to NHC with Hugh that afternoon, I found a top-notch team of forecasters and analysts demonstrating remarkable calm and focus as they dealt with a growing hurricane threat in their own backyard. Although many of the models and computer-based analysis tools now used were already place by 2005, hand-drawn analysis remained--and still remains today--an useful means of gaining detailed perspective on storm structure.
One of the greatest pleasures of my visit was meeting NHC’s director at the time, Max Mayfield. Now retired from NOAA, Max files reports during hurricane season for Miami’s Channel 10 (WPLG). To me, Max epitomizes the friendly yet sober demeanor and the grace-under-pressure mindset that any NHC director needs to master.

Figure 2. Max Mayfield and me at the NHC. Not only did Max and I discover that we were both alumni of the University of Oklahoma, but Max grew up just a couple of miles away from me in Oklahoma City, and we went to the same high school (more than a decade apart, though). Go Classen Comets!

Media interest in Katrina grew through the day on Wednesday as confidence in a South Florida landfall near hurricane strength increased. That evening I watched Max and forecaster Lixion Avila conduct a “pooled” interview, where national networks and local TV stations around the country can upload and/or broadcast the same sound bites at the same time. By this point, it was apparent that Katrina would likely circle the southwest side of an upper-level high and arrive near the Gulf Coast in about 5-6 days. How strong Katrina would be by that time was anybody’s guess, as skill at intensity prediction in 2005 was substantially less than it is today, especially beyond 2 or 3 days. (See Figures 1 and 2 in my recent post on progress in tropical cyclone modeling and forecasting).
The 11 pm EDT outlook on Wednesday night called for Katrina to strike the Gulf Coast as a Category 1 hurricane around Monday night, August 28. In Wednesday night’s NHC discussion, Lixion wrote: “The intensity forecast follows the SHIPS model but Katrina could intensify a little more than anticipated.”

Figure 3. NHC forecaster Lixion Avila (left) and director Max Mayfield conduct a pooled media interview on Thursday night, August 25, while Katrina was over the Miami area. Image credit: Bob Henson.

The drama escalated on multiple levels as Katrina approached Miami on Thursday, August 25. Hugh and I drove to NHC that afternoon for his evening shift, slated to begin at 4:00 pm, as palm trees were tossed in gale-force winds and pulses of heavy rain arrived. Forecasters zeroed in on the short-term impacts that afternoon while keeping an eye on Katrina’s longer-term future. As the storm crescendoed that evening, I didn’t worry about my own safety: the NHC building, with concrete walls and reinforced windows, was built to withstand the rigors of a Category 5 storm, after the previous NHC location in Coral Gables was hit hard by 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. (The radome of Miami’s pre-Doppler WSR-57 radar was blown off the center’s roof in wind gusts just north of the eywall that reached 164 mph.) Even with the sense of security provided by this state-of-the-art building, it was unsettling to watch sheets of rain fall in an increasingly horizontal orientation just outside the door.

Figure 4
. NHC forecaster Rob Handel (now with the NOAA/NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction) monitors the progress of Katrina on Thursday evening, August 25. Image credit: Bob Henson

Figure 5. Radar returns and surface observations just before 2300 GMT (7:00 pm EDT) on August 25, 2005, as Katrina was moving ashore just north of Miami. Image credit: National Weather Service.

Figure 6. The wind-speed trace from an anemometer atop the NHC building shows conditions going virtually calm around 8:30 pm, followed by a gust of more than 70 knots (81 mph) less than an hour later. Peak sustained winds at NHC during Katrina at NHC were 69 mph, with a top gust to 87 mph.

Between 8:30 and 9:15 pm, the eye of Katrina passed directly over NHC. A few of us stepped outside for a moment. It was Max’s first-ever time in the eye of a hurricane, as well as mine. The eye was mostly cloud-filled, illuminated by the lights of the Miami area, with occasional flashes of lightning along the horizon. I watched as the U.S. flag on the NHC grounds waved listlessly in a half-hearted breeze, then finally went limp. We stood quietly for a few minutes, taking in the surreal scene. Then Max, very calmly, said something to the effect of, “Time to get back to work.” Less than an hour later, the powerful eastern eyewall of Katrina was atop NHC, and winds were gusting to more than 70 mph.
The next morning, Hugh and I drove back to his home in Miami’s Upper East Side through a tattered landscape. Countless palm fronds littered the street, with pools of water everywhere. Rainfall totals during Katrina were as high as 16.33” in Perrine, about 20 miles southwest of Miami. After cleaning up Hugh’s yard, we went for lunch at a nearby restaurant, where it seemed all eyes were on the TV screen as a weathercaster showed the latest projected path for Katrina.
Figure 7. Damage was non-catastrophic but widespread across the Miami area in the wake of Katrina. Image credit: Bob Henson.
The 11:00 am EDT advisory on this morning (Friday, August 26) showed Katrina striking the Gulf Coast as a major hurricane. Looking at the TV screen, I had a surprisingly unsettling feeling, knowing that a New Orleans landfall was a possibility. I’d read many articles pointing out the city’s huge risk of catastrophe from a major hurricane strike. ”Washing Away,” a brilliant five-part series by Mark Schleifstein and colleagues published in 2002 by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, had made an especially strong impression on me. Sadly, many of the dire predictions in “Washing Away” and other articles and analyses would soon come to tragic life. (I later discovered it took Schleifstein that four years to convince his editors to let him write that series.)

Jeff Masters, who launched this blog in April 2005--only a few months before Katrina--will take a look back at this life-changing storm later this week. The posts Jeff made during Katrina, which are available in this reverse-chronological compilation of posts from August 2005, make for compelling reading even a decade later. Meanwhile, I’ll discuss my own Katrina experience, plus what’s happening with Erika, in today’s installment of the Weather Underground TV show (#WUTV on Twitter) on The Weather Channel. The show airs between 6:00 and 8:00 pm EDT; right now the Katrina segment is scheduled for the latter part of tonight’s first hour. Hope you can join us! If you don’t have access to TWC on cable, you can still access selected clips from each episode, live streaming of online-only content, and a WUTV chatroom, all on the Weather Underground WUTV website. Also of interest: Peter Neilley, senior vice president of global forecast services for The Weather Company, weighs in on how forecasts and messaging have evolved in the 10 years since Katrina struck.

We’ll post an update on Erika later tonight.

Bob Henson


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