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Hurricane Katrina: Not A Big Deal?

Yesterday, in an interview with Reuters, Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, warned that Katrina was far from the worst catastrophe that could be imposed from a hurricane.

"I think the day is coming. I think eventually we're going to have a very powerful hurricane in a major metropolitan area worse than what we saw in Katrina and it's going to be a mega-disaster. With lots of lost lives," Mayfield said.

"I don't know whether that's going to be this year or five years from now or a hundred years from now. But as long as we continue to develop the coastline like we are, we're setting up for disaster."

While I usually pooh-pooh most statements from the media regarding doom and gloom scenarios, Max Mayfield's statement here is right on. Unlike certain other weather blogs you might read, I'm not going to say that a major storm is due to hit the Northeast within the next five years. However, Dr. Mayfield's statements ring true. It is entirely possible, in fact likely, that in the next 100 years, a major (read: Category 3 or higher) storm might hit Islip, NY, Providence, RI, or Atlantic City, NJ. Even scarier, New York City, Boston, or Miami could be in these storms' paths.

To me, the most frightening part is that most people don't seem to care. I was in Fort Myers, FL this past weekend visiting a good buddy of mine. He informed me that Cape Coral, FL is in the top 5 of fastest growing cities, percentage-wise, in the country. This is not simply an indication of demographics in Cape Coral, but of the US coastline as a whole. Our coasts are being developed actively and have been for the last 50 years. The results of which were clearly destructive in New Orleans, but would be an entirely new ballgame if a Category 5 storm made a direct hit on a major metropolitan area, such as Miami (recall, Katrina swiped New Orleans as a Category 3). Bottom line is, with our development of the coasts, an unheard of loss of life for Americans from tropical cyclones is not only possible, but inevitable.

Another quote from Max Mayfield that rang true to me was:

"One of my greatest fears is having people go to bed at night prepared for a Category 1 and waking up to a Katrina or Andrew. One of these days, that's going to happen," Mayfield said.

Last year, I had an internship in Miami. It turned out that my flight was scheduled to leave the day Katrina made landfall in Miami. When I went to sleep that night, with a moderate tropical storm about 200 miles offshore, I figured I had every chance to leave Miami the next day at 6:00 AM on a flight bound for Philadelphia. Little did I know at the time, as I was more concerned with getting out of Miami than checking the weather, that Katrina had begun to rapidly intensify. By the time I woke up at 4 in the morning, Katrina was a Category 1 hurricane and getting stronger. The apartment I was staying in was literally 150 feet from Biscayne Bay. Thankfully, my flight was not cancelled and I made it safely back to State College later that night.

However, allow me to take you on a thought experiment. If you'll recall, Katrina took a long time to develop as it traversed the Atlantic. Eventually, after many flare ups of convection, it finally became a tropical storm on August 24, about 70 miles southeast of Nassau, Bahamas. It then moved northwestward at first, then surprisingly westward, making a direct hit on Fort Lauderdale. Let's take this evolution into a worst case scenario. Imagine instead that Katrina formed 200 mi southeast of Nassau. It made the same northwesterly jog while intensifying quickly. It is now 3 o'clock in the afternoon in Miami, and I am just getting back from my internship and am exhausted. I see that Katrina is a strong tropical storm, but not forecast to be anything "major" by the time my flight is supposed to leave. I need to get a good night's rest and go to bed around 7PM. When I wake up at 4AM, Katrina is suddenly a Category 3 storm, moving westerly and on a direct course toward Miami. Also, in the overnight hours, Katrina, while moving west, began to move faster, thanks to the subtropical ridge. Katrina is now forecast to make landfall in just 10 hours as a borderline Category 4 storm directly in the heart of Miami. In this worst case scenario, airports are shut down and there is not enough time to evacuate the city. Terrible events ensue...

Again, this is simply a worst case scenario. However, this thought experiment could play out maybe once in the next thousand years and the results would be catastrophic. There are many other similar situations involving Houston, Mobile, Tampa, Savannah, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, yet there is a ring of truth to all of them. This would truly be what Max Mayfield is talking about when he says the worst is yet to come.

Posted by Adam Moyer | Permalink