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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 08/30/2010

Katrina: A lesson in risk mismanagement

By Andrew Freedman

* Hot, but humidity bearable: Full Forecast | Katrina, 5 years later *

Hurricane Katrina, which roared ashore five years ago this past Saturday, was not exactly a shining moment in risk management. Weather forecasters, including those who were then part of the independent website capitalweather.com, repeatedly warned about the extreme dangers presented by the hurricane with a name more befitting of an exotic woman than a deadly tempest.


Hurricane Katrina seen from a NASA satellite as it approached the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline on Aug. 28, 2005. Credit: NASA.

At 1 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2005, more than 24 hours before landfall, Jason Samenow wrote: "Katrina is now a very dangerous Category 4 hurricane, headed towards New Orleans. It's possible there has never been a storm as threatening in modern U.S. history in terms of its potential toll on life, property and the environment." Similar alarm bells went off throughout the meteorology community, yet it seemed that few in the federal government got the message until Katrina was already flooding the "Big Easy."

Katrina reminds me of what a disaster specialist at Columbia University constantly emphasized in a graduate class I took: "There are no natural disasters," he would say; "only manmade ones."

For example, earthquakes don't kill people. Buildings that topple in an earthquake do. A hurricane's storm surge doesn't kill people (at least not when the coastline has been evacuated). Levees that break, and allow the surge to inundate a populated area, do.

Katrina was a wake up call that even in the 21st century there still exists a massive disconnect between how skilled we are at anticipating a threat, and how well-prepared we are for its occurrence. In a risk management context, Katrina was a glaring example of a known risk that was horribly mismanaged. (The Gulf oil spill offers a more contemporary, non-weather-related example).

In the case of Katrina, the anticipation was provided by forecasters with the National Weather Service (NWS), research institutions and private forecasting companies, all of whom had long recognized New Orleans' vulnerability to a hurricane's storm surge and were screaming for federal, state and local officials to pay attention in the days leading up to the storm. The loss of life would undoubtedly have been greater had they not done so.

For example, prior to landfall, the NWS Forecast Office in New Orleans issued the most frightening severe weather statement I have ever seen, which is now viewed as a template for other offices to use in case a Category Five hurricane threatens their forecast area.

Issued shortly after 10 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2005, shortly before a mandatory evacuation order went out to the residents of New Orleans, the statement read in part (capitalization is from the original statement):

...DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED...
HURRICANE KATRINA...A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH...RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.
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...LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.
THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL. PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE...INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.
HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY...A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT.
AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD...AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS...PETS...AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.
POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS...AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.

Five years later, as news networks cover the human toll Katrina inflicted on New Orleans and the national psyche, few have noted how well forecasters anticipated most of Katrina's moves. One glaring exception was the storm's rapid intensification into a Category Five monster (before weakening to a Category 3 by the time it made landfall along the Louisiana coast), which was not well forecast, driving home the point that scientists have a long way to go in predicting fluctuations in hurricane intensity.

The NWS's own Hurricane Katrina assessment report lauded the agency for providing such accurate information, singling out the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in particular. The report stated:

NHC's official track forecasts for Katrina issued within about two and a half days of landfall in Louisiana were exceptionally accurate and consistent. The forecast errors were considerably less than the average official Atlantic track errors for the 10-year period 1995-2004. Every official forecast that was issued beginning at 5 p.m. EDT on August 26 showed a track crossing the coast of Mississippi and/or southeastern Louisiana.
The official track forecasts issued 12, 24, 36, and 48 hours prior to 8 a.m. August 29 were in error by only 19, 24, 32, and 56 nautical miles, respectively, an improvement of 31 to 44 percent over the corresponding average track errors for 1995- 2004. These errors are less than half the magnitude of the corresponding 10-year averages (1995-2004) among all Atlantic basin forecasts.

The report also found:

Additionally, every official forecast within about three days of landfall in Louisiana correctly anticipated that Katrina would be a major hurricane (at least Category 3) at landfall on the northern Gulf coast.

Yet despite these largely on-target forecasts, the preparation for and response to the damages Katrina inflicted were more befitting of a threat that was unforeseen. In fact, federal officials defended their crisis management by erroneously claiming that the threat Katrina posed did not become clear until about a day before landfall.

The weather forecasting community should be proud of its performance during Katrina, albeit with a heavy heart. The officials whose responsibility it was to act based upon the weather information, however, don't have as much reason for feeling like they did everything they could to prevent a disaster. Let's hope they heed the warnings better next time.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By Andrew Freedman  | August 30, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Freedman, News & Notes, Policy, Science, Tropical Weather  
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Comments

Tons of blame is always put on the federal govt. for the poor response but we also (5 years later) need to look at the leadership on a local and state level. Mayor Nagin was a deer caught in headlights and the governor was as well. President Bush was telling people to get the heck out three to four days in advance of the storm. I remember waking-up after the storm passed New Orleans and the Today Show and ABC News were reporting with glee how New Orleans was spared the brunt. Where the federal govt. was caught with their pants down was with the levees bursting and the poor communication coming out in the following days.

Posted by: stinkerflat1 | August 30, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Good commentary. It is interesting that very little of the wind damage they talked about in the warning happened. But the east winds from the storm passing to the east piled up water in the lake and helped breach 53 different levies (wikipedia). Could that have been predicted?

Posted by: eric654 | August 30, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Agreed stinkerflat1. There is enough blame to go around on all levels. The question in my mind is have we made improvements for future issues? For example, my parents live down there. One thing I noted was that they always waited until the last minute to go. Reason being...massive traffic jams on the evac routes. Why can't they do a rolling evacuation based on the bullseye or use more mass transit? I hope stuff like this has been worked out.

Posted by: SPS1 | August 30, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Eric: The frightening statement that warned of catastrophic wind damage did verify in coastal mississippi, but not in New Orleans. This is because of a last-minute shift in the storm's track that kept the city on the weaker, western side of what was actually a weakening storm at the time of landfall. As for the levee issues, the risk of at least "overtopping" them was articulated by the Hurricane Center, and it was well-known that the levees might not withstand a category three or above storm.

Stinkerflat1: All levels of government failed in many different ways. As far as Mayor Nagin's performance goes, the thing I fault him most for, in terms of preparation anyway, is waiting until about 19 hours prior to landfall to issue a mandatory evacuation order, and providing no means of public transportation to get residents out of town. This was despite the fact that forecasters had warned as early as three days prior to landfall that the storm was likely to come ashore as a Category Three or greater hurricane.

SPS1: One thing that has been done in Louisiana and other states, such as Texas, is to improve coordination of contraflow to assist evacuations. This involves opening all lanes of major highways to traffic going away from the storm. Texas implemented this very poorly for Hurricane Rita in 2005, but learned from this experience during the evacuation ahead of Hurricane Ike a few years later.

Posted by: afreedma | August 30, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I was in New Orleans in September 2004, less than a year before Katrina hit. Flying in and out of the city, you can't help but notice how much of it is surrounded by water. The lake, the river, and swamps and those infernal canals.

After Katrina, the blame game started and continues to this day. But Orleans has long been a catastrophe waiting to happen. The original French settlement was on a bit of high ground, but as the city expanded into areas below sea level, the risks of inundation increased.

Meantime the gulf wetlands were rapidly decreasing and as more oil and gas were pumped off, the land began to sink even further.

New Orleans is a city built on Mississippi silt and and charming and endearing as the city and its people are, it was a tragic mistake to allow it to become so large.

If global warming continues apace, in the not-too-distant future much of southern Louisiana is going to be underwater and New Orleans will be uninhabitable. Sadly, there may be more Katrina type indundations before people finally realize that New Orleans needs to be rebuilt further north.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | August 30, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Andrew,

They have had contraflow in place since before Katrina if I recall correctly. EVEN with it, it's still a major nightmare from traffic jams to cars running out of gas.

Posted by: SPS1 | August 30, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

SPS1: I didn't say that they did not have contraflow prior to Katrina, but rather that coordination of contraflow has improved. And yes, obviously there will be a lot of traffic involved with a massive evacuation no matter what.

JerryFloyd1: The loss of Louisiana wetlands is an integral part of the story of why this hurricane took such a heavy toll on NOLA, and why people still say that the underlying problems have not been solved.

Posted by: afreedma | August 30, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Slightly off topic, but still hurricane-related: are you guys watching Earl? If this thing keeps jogging to the WNW, the DC area could be in for a blow.

Posted by: Claudius2 | August 30, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Not to be missed in this post, is a link to the archives that make up the former capitalweather.com. Site Search is not yet available (should be within the next few days), but you now have over 5 years of archived forecast, thoughts, and history at your finger-tips. Hope it's useful.

Posted by: JJones-CapitalWeatherGang | August 30, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Actually contraflow worked "relatively" well for Katrina. They were lucky to have worked out some of the kinks during Ivan the year before. I have friends who evacuated for both and said the Katrina evactuation was much smoother than for Ivan (not saying it was for everyone).

Posted by: nolagirl67 | August 30, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

I distinctly remember the day Katrina hit...the news reports [as posted above by stinkerflat1] were tending to report that New Orleans had been spared the brunt of the storm, and it was only a day or two later that the damage caused by the breaking of the levees was made strikingly evident...along with the post-hurricane conditions prevailing in and around the Superdome. To some extent, inadequate immediate response [exacerbated by Republican and, nowadays, Tea Party emphasis on budgetary considerations over effective immediate response!] played a significant role in the post-Katrina disaster in and around New Orleans. It seems as though wealthier [mainly white] folks evacuated well ahead of Katrina, leaving the poor [principally African American] people in town to suffer the consequences of the levee disaster. BTW, the fact that Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne, the major source of the floodwaters, comprised a heavily-polluted industrial zone added an environmental component to the disaster, which has tended to retard the overall recovery effort.

I also have been reading the Wikipedia article on Hurricane Andrew [1992]and the damage inflicted by that storm in Florida and Louisiana. Andrew has been reclassified a Category 5 storm on the basis of wind damage south of Miami.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | August 30, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Claudius 2: Yes, we are watching Earl. Right now the risk of a direct hit (i.e. landfall) is highest on the Outer Banks of N.C. and in eastern New England such as Cape Cod. We'll definitely have more on this though as the forecast takes shape.

Posted by: afreedma | August 30, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

"It seems as though wealthier [mainly white] folks evacuated well ahead of Katrina, leaving the poor [principally African American] people in town to suffer the consequences of the levee disaster."

I'm not sure you wanted that to sound the way it did, but it's BS no matter what. The poor were disproportionally stranded, but it had nothing to do with rich people. Nagin, the state, and FEMA had three+ days warning, and almost nothing was done to prepare to move people out of the city. By the time Nagin sent out his absurdly late mandatory evacuation order, there was no time to prepare any transportation.

Posted by: Claudius2 | August 30, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Some people will always refuse 2 leave their reidences no matter how bad an approaching hurricane might be. Every time there's a storm about 2 hit an area, their's always some1 who says "I'm going 2 ride this 1 out". The blame for Katrina can certainly b spread out among Fed, State & Local Govt, as well as, many of the people living there, who refused 2 leave.

Posted by: VaTechBob | August 30, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Katrina is a perfect illustration of a the most significant limitation in hurricane forecasting then and now, predicting rapid changes in intensity

The forecasts of storm track were excellent in comparison to average errors, BUT forecasting the "last-minute shift in the storm's track that kept the city on the weaker, western side.." likewise reflects a major remaining challenge.

On the other hand, it's obvious from Andrew's excellent summary, even perfect forecasts would not have changed the totally inadequate pre and post- storm response.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 30, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Hurricanes are capricious by nature and the best weather forecasting tools aren't always going to pinpoint with 100% accuracy exactly where a storm will make landfall.

Ike (2008) swerved slightly to the east, just as Katrina did, and in doing so spared both Galveston and Houston a direct hit. But folks in La Marque, Texas who refused to evacuate paid a deadly price.

Let's also forget that some people don't want to risk leaving their property or can't leave for whatever reason. My family rode out Donna in a frame building left over from WWII, perched atop cinder blocks. Given the strength of the storm, we were lucky that building didn't blow away. But our options were limited. No transportation, no place to go.

As I recall, there was an Amtrak train ready to evacuate people in New Orleans but even if they had been able to get to the train station (a long walk in many cases), would they have left their property behind? Probably not. So the train pulled out Sunday evening with only a handful of people aboard.

The eeriest thing was the night I arrived in New Orleans in 2005 Hurricane Ophelia slammed into the Florida East Coast. I watched the coverage in my hotel room, right across from the Superdome. Tulane and Southern Mississippi were playing in the Dome that night. No one could possibly have imagined the horror that would play out in that building and in the city in less than a year hence.

Though again, flying into and out of the airport, I had a feeling of the city's vunerability. There is just so much water surrounding New Orleans.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | August 30, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

I have not seen much evidence that the wind warnings posted here did verify anywhere. The storm was expected to come ashore a good bit stronger than it did... even though it was still one of the strongest landfalling hurricanes on record. A vast majority of the damage was water related.

Posted by: Ian-CapitalWeatherGang | August 30, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

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