Thursday, August 26, 2010

Katrina - My look back

5 years ago I gave my Intro class an assignment. Forecast the landfall and intensity of Katrina.

It was a forecasting exercise. They weren't supposed to be justified or have reasoning of any kind. I gave them the National Hurricane Center link where they could follow it along. I was hoping they would loop satellite imagery, read forecast discussions, follow the projected track over the several day period.

I wanted them to take ownership of their forecast. That is, I wanted them to realize what they were doing more than what they were forecasting. They were making a projection of doom. A projection where people, actual real people, in their own country, maybe even in their own state, would act based on that forecast. If they watched the news they got to see what those forecasts brought about:

Mandatory Evacuation orders;
Descriptions of doom along the coastline;
the evacuation of countless people via clogged highway;
The media reports of people NOT leaving nor worrying.

Then the other night, NatGeo presented Witness: Katrina.

It showed the beer laden hurricane parties. People preparing with duct tape, candles, and supplies. people evacuating. Police doing city wide patrols. News media covering the storm. Stormchasers stormchasing. People trapped in the rafters watching the water rise. people hanging onto their front porch for two days. People being rescued by helicopter. Dead bodies floating in the water.

The very definition of destruction was accurately viewed through regular, everyday cameras from regular people.

I knew it was going to hit close to New Orleans and that the storm surge would be impressive. Upwards of 35 feet of water at the coast, which if I recall was a few feet above forecasts. The track of Katrina, her strength prior to landfall and the shape of the coastline made for the perfect surge event. The levies were an afterthought, especially s the media reports rolled in during that morning. I knew they would come, it was just a matter of when and where and how.

Not sure what those kids learned that week. But I am pretty sure a few of them will remember that exercise and the aftermath. I hope I made them appreciate the strength and unpredictability of severe weather hazards, and the predictability of shorter range forecasts. Perhaps even the predictability of unpredictability of the storm surge in Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama.

As far as my personal feelings go, it was a tragedy of course. On par with OKC and 9-11 but without the "we hate you" part added in. It was as disastrous as natural disasters can be. But that comes with an asterisk ...because it could have been worse. Had Katrina finished her eyewall cycle 9 hours earlier she would have been stronger, bigger, with more surge.

We really wont know Katrina's impact until the next big coastal city is threatened. Sure there have been a few already. But Katrina was the beginning since it was the biggest. They didnt make movies after Isabel wrecked southwest FL in a very small path of destruction. Nor did Ike inspire documentaries and tv shows. Only time will tell.

One thing is for certain. The hurricane research community responded rather well. Currently 3 field programs trying to better understand hurricane genesis, hurricane prediction, and hurricane processes this year. One was ongoing doing Katrina too. The results are flowing in, but there is still alot to understand ... including communicating with the public.