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The Katrina catastrophe

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 12:53 PM GMT on August 30, 2005

As news reports begin to filter in from the hardest hit areas, the scope of Katrina's destruction is slowly being realized. Remember in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, how there was a lot of relief about how much worse it could have been, and how well Miami fared? This cheerfulness faded once the search teams penetrated to Homestead and found the near-total devastation there. The fact we have not heard at all from the areas hardest hit by Katrina--Slidell, Bay Saint Louis, Pass Christian--means that these areas have probably been mostly destroyed, with substantial loss of life of those who failed to evacuate. While the winds of Katrina were only of Category 3 strength when the storm moved through these areas, Katrina's 20 - 22 foot storm surge was still characteristic of a Category 5 storm. Remember, the all-time record for a storm surge in the U.S. is 26 feet--from Hurricane Camille--and Katrina's storm surge was close to that level, but covered an area three times larger. And with a two block long breach in the Lake Pontchartrain levee allowing the entire city of New Orleans to flood today, we are witnessing a natural disaster of the scope unseen in America since the great 1938 Hurricane devastated New England, killing 600. Damage from Katrina will probably top $50 billion, and the death toll will be in the hundreds.

Katrina now
Katrina is still a tropical storm, but is rapidly losing her ability to cause destruction. Her top winds are only about 40 mph at 9am EDT, and the storm is moving quickly enough to the north-northeast that extensive damage from flooding is unlikely over the Tennessee valley. Rainfall amounts in this area have been in the 2-4 inch range so far, which will cause localized flooding problems. A few tornadoes are still possible, mainly over Georgia and Tennessee.

What's behind Katrina
Tropical Depression 13 dissipated yesterday, but is being watched for signs of regeneration. If it does regenerate, this system is probably only a threat to Bermuda. Another area of concern is a strong tropical low pressure area midway between Africa and the Lesser Antilles Islands. This low has a large ciculation and a small amount of deep convection trying to build over it. The low has some modest wind shear it is fighting, but the real impediment to its development is a very large area of dry, dust-laden air surrounding it. The dry air will probably keep the low from developing into a depression today. If the low does develop, the early track models forecast the system to track northwestward over the open Atlantic Ocean.

Dr. 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.