- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005


In terms of economic damage and lives lost, Katrina may turn out to be one of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history.

But the storm actually turned out to be much less powerful than predicted. Meteorologists say a puff of dry air coming out of the Midwest weakened Katrina just before it reached land, transforming a Category 5 monster into a less-threatening Category 3 storm.

The last-minute gust also pushed Katrina slightly to the east of its New Orleans-bound trajectory, sparing the city a direct hit — though not horrendous harm.

“It was kind of an amazing sequence of events,” said Peter Black, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Research Division of the federal government’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

On Sunday, meteorologists watched in awe as one of the most powerful hurricanes they had ever seen churned northward over the Gulf of Mexico on a direct bearing for New Orleans. Fed by unusually warm waters in the central gulf, Katrina pumped up to the fourth most powerful hurricane ever observed, a Category 5 monster with top winds approaching 175 mph.

But by the time it reached land Monday, Katrina was no stronger than any of a dozen or more hurricanes that have hit the United States in the past century. Camille had a substantially lower central pressure when it slammed into Mississippi in 1969. Charley blasted Florida with higher winds when it came ashore near Tampa last year.

So if it wasn’t so powerful, how did Hurricane Katrina inflict so much destruction?

The storm’s sheer size was one factor. As powerful as Charley was, its swath of destruction was only about 10 miles wide. Katrina battered everything from just west of New Orleans to Pensacola, Fla., a span of more than 200 miles. At noon Monday, hurricane- force winds extended to 125 miles from Katrina’s center.

“This storm was quite a bit larger, so the extent of the damaging wind field would have covered a much larger geographic area,” said Marc Levitan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University.

Geography also played a role in the hurricane’s destructiveness. The Gulf of Mexico’s northern fringe is an extremely shallow shelf extending up to 120 miles offshore. That makes the region’s coastline especially vulnerable to the storm surges that hurricanes create as their winds and low pressure pile up water and push it ashore.

Katrina also was moving slowly, about 12 to 15 mph. That gave the storm surge more time to build up as the hurricane approached the coast.

Those circumstances made Katrina “nearly a worst-case scenario,” said Hurricane Research Division meteorologist Stanley Goldberg. Some witnesses reported storm surges of more than 25 feet along the Mississippi coast, among the highest recorded.

But the catastrophic sequence of events that appeared likely on Sunday afternoon — a Category 5 hurricane washing over the Big Easy’s ramparts and filling it like a bowl — did not come to pass.

Instead, a different scenario unfolded. Several levees failed yesterday, unleashing floods that placed the city in peril long after Katrina had dissipated.

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