Image: National Hurricane Center
Andy Newman  /  AP
National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield, left, and Federal Emergency Managment Agency employee Billy Wagner examine the stress of Hurricane Katrina Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
updated 8/29/2005 4:52:17 PM ET 2005-08-29T20:52:17

Max Mayfield stared at the frightening images on the radar screen: Hurricane Katrina was about to hit Louisiana and Mississippi with 140-mph-plus winds and flooding that could obliterate some of the levees protecting New Orleans.

"This is going to be a terrible day," the National Hurricane Center's director said, shaking his head.

As the Category 4 storm threatened to submerge the Big Easy early Monday, about a dozen forecasters swarmed around brightly colored computer monitors showing Katrina's wind speed and atmospheric pressure.

Mayfield, deputy director Ed Rappaport and others juggled all sorts of duties — making forecasts, passing information to emergency officials in hard-hit areas, briefing reporters.

At one point, Mayfield took a call from Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who congratulated the center for its accuracy.

"That doesn't happen every day," a smiling Mayfield said.

Pride in a good forecast
As it turned out, the hurricane made a slight turn to the right before hitting land just outside New Orleans, sparing the city from a catastrophe of biblical proportions. But that turn was just 15 miles off of the track projected by the hurricane center on Friday night.

"If that is not a superb forecast, I don't know what is," Mayfield said.

As the worst weather hit New Orleans, forecasters started to lose some data from Louisiana. Radar and observation sites got knocked out by the winds, and the hurricane center lost contact with some weather offices. So Mayfield relayed details of damage that he heard from the field or saw on television.

"There's 3 or 4 feet of water over I-90 in Mississippi," he said.

"Wow. Already?" meteorologist Eric Blake asked.

"Already," Mayfield said grimly.

Later on, he asked forecasters: "Did you hear that part of the Superdome roof blew off?" They said nothing, focusing on the work at hand.

Intense shifts when catastrophes hit
Forecasters are scheduled to work in eight-hour shifts even during catastrophic storms like Katrina so they do not burn out.

The hurricane center's bunker-like building has generators for emergency power and walls and a roof made of 10-inch-thick, steel-reinforced concrete. The tornado-safe bathrooms have walls and a ceiling 20 inches thick. That came in handy last Thursday when Katrina passed directly over the center as it pushed through South Florida.

Hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart noticed how the mood in the forecast room got a little more relaxed Monday when the storm weakened from a Category 5 before coming ashore.

Chris Sisko, a meteorologist, said Katrina gave him some sleepless nights.

"I got sick to my stomach worrying about the people who were going to get hit by this," he said.

Right after Rappaport signed off from his last media briefing, he joked about the next tropical system far out in the Atlantic: "So when will I see you guys again? Tomorrow?"

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