Video: Forecaster who predicted devastation

By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 9/15/2005 6:33:06 PM ET 2005-09-15T22:33:06

NEW ORLEANS — On Aug. 28, the storm was still a day away. Evacuations were under way and people were just starting to arrive at the Superdome.

At his desk at the National Weather Service office in Slidell, outside New Orleans, meteorologist Robert Ricks knew he had a job to do. He knew he probably had one remaining chance. And so, using computers, history and his fellow forecasters, he sat down to write.

"I happened to be on the shift," Ricks says. "I happened to pull the trigger. It just happened to be me that day.

Over the newswires — at NBC News headquarters in New York and across the country — came a document, titled: "URGENT... SPECIAL MESSAGE." It was an extraordinary bulletin. It warned of a most powerful hurricane with unprecedented strength. It predicted: "MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS. PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL-CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL. THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. OTHERS WILL BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED."

Perhaps most remarkably, Ricks' document predicted: "WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS."

That was the day before the storm. The images of devastation make it clear what happened.

Brian Williams: Did a part of you want to be wrong?

Robert Ricks: I would much rather have been wrong in this one. I would much rather be talking to you and taking the heat and crying wolf. But our local expertise said otherwise. You know, "Hey, let's gear up for the big one, this is going to be the big one."

Williams: How much of you is in that statement? What of you is in that wording?

Ricks: I also had to validate each one of those statements and I was, in my mind, I was saying, "I'm not going to take this out, it sounds valid. I'm not going to take this part out, it sounds valid.

Williams: So you went through point by point?

Ricks: Yeah, I read each one. I was trying to find things to actually take out. And I said, "I cannot find it in myself to take these out, because they seem very valid for the situation." And I came from the experience of going through Betsy and Camille myself in the Lower Ninth Ward.

But his document was right. And now this lifelong resident of New Orleans, who grew up in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward section of the city, is back at work alongside co-workers who have no homes and are wearing the clothes they wore that day.

Williams: If you knew the damage was going to be like this, you did everything in your power to tell people a monster was coming, did the response break your heart?

Ricks: Yes, it did. Because we always prepare for the big one; we just didn't think it was going to come this soon.

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