For all the criticism of the Bush administration’s confused response to Hurricane Katrina, at least two federal agencies got it right: the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center.
They forecast the path of the storm and the potential for devastation with remarkable accuracy.
The performance by the two agencies calls into question claims by President Bush and others in his administration that Katrina was a catastrophe that no one envisioned.
For example, Bush told ABC on Sep. 1 that “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” In its storm warnings, the hurricane center never used the word “breached.” But a day before Katrina came ashore Aug. 29, the agency warned in capital letters: “SOME LEVEES IN THE GREATER NEW ORLEANS AREA COULD BE OVERTOPPED.”
National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield also gave daily pre-storm videoconference briefings to federal officials in Washington, warning them of a nightmare scenario of New Orleans’ levees not holding, winds smashing windows in high-rise buildings and flooding wiping out large swaths of the Gulf Coast.
A photo on the White House Web site shows Bush in Crawford, Texas, watching Mayfield give a briefing on Aug. 28, a day before Katrina smashed ashore with 145-mph winds.
‘Incredible’ human suffering predicted
The National Weather Service office in Slidell, La., which covers the New Orleans area, put out its own warnings that day, saying, “MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS ... PERHAPS LONGER” and predicting “HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.”
Mayfield and Paul Trotter, the meteorologist in charge of the Slidell office, both refused to criticize the federal response.
But Mayfield said: “The fact that we had a major hurricane forecast over or near New Orleans is reason for great concern. The local and state emergency management knew that as well as FEMA did.”
And the risk to New Orleans in particular was well-recognized long before Katrina.
“The 33 years that I’ve been at the hurricane center we have always been saying — the directors before me and I have always said — that the greatest potential for the nightmare scenarios, in the Gulf of Mexico anyway, is that New Orleans and southeast Louisiana area,” Mayfield said.
Heeding Mayfield's warnings, FEMA conducted a ‘Hurricane Pam’ exercise 13 months before Katrina struck to assess how New Orleans would handle a theoretical Category 3 hurricane. The exercise predicted a gap in the levee system would flood major portions of the city and damage as much as 87 percent of New Orleans' homes.
The hurricane center and the weather service have not been without critics. Some private meteorologists laud the accurate forecasts but wonder why those dire predictions were not issued earlier. They also argue that residents were bombarded with too much information from several sources.
Storm-track projections on target
As early as three days before Katrina pulverized the Gulf Coast, the hurricane center warned that New Orleans was in the Category 4 hurricane’s path. Storm-track projections released to the public more than two days (56 hours) before Katrina came ashore were off by only about 15 miles — and only because the hurricane made a slight turn to the right before hitting land just to the east of New Orleans.
That is better than the average 48-hour error of about 160 miles and 24-hour error of about 85 miles.
Two days before the storm hit, the hurricane center predicted Katrina’s strength at landfall; the agency was off the mark by only about 10 mph. That kind of accuracy is unusual, because forecasters find it particularly difficult to predict whether a storm will strengthen or weaken.
The next day, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city after speaking with Bush. Katrina had been updated to a Category 5 storm with NOAA predicting coastal storm surge flooding of 15 to 20 feet above normal tide levels.
AccuWeather Inc. senior meteorologist Michael Steinberg said emergency managers and the public could have been given an earlier warning of Katrina’s threat to New Orleans. He said the private company had issued forecasts nearly 12 hours earlier than the hurricane center warning that Katrina was aiming at the area.
He said that difference was significant because it would have given more daylight hours for evacuations.
Mayfield said hurricane watches and warnings are issued to give 36 and 24 hours’ notice, respectively. Lengthening that time could mean larger areas than necessary would be evacuated, he said. That could cause larger traffic jams and put people in danger of being stuck on the road when the hurricane hit.
Trotter also wanted to make sure the public knew of the Category 4 hurricane’s threat beforehand. His forecasters publicly warned that a hurricane of that magnitude could cause widespread destruction of buildings, hurl small cars into the air and cause the levee system to fail.
But Trotter went even further and called Katrina “A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH ... RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.” That storm wiped some towns off the map along the Gulf Coast and killed 256 people.
Warning phone calls to governors, mayors
Mayfield also did something he rarely does before a hurricane hits: He personally called the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin two days ahead of time to warn them about the monstrous hurricane. Nagin has said he ordered an evacuation because Mayfield’s call “scared the hell” out of him.
“I just wanted to be able to go to sleep that night knowing I had done everything I could,” Mayfield said.