- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

MIAMI (AP) — Researchers say Hurricane Katrina was a weaker storm than first thought when it slammed into the Gulf Coast with the strength of a Category 3 storm rather than a Category 4 one.

New data show that Katrina’s top winds were about 125 mph at landfall, and that New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain likely were spared the storm’s strongest winds, according to a report by the National Hurricane Center.

New Orleans’ storm levees were thought to be able to protect the city from the flooding of a Category 3 storm. But portions of the levee system were either topped or failed, leaving up to 80 percent of the city under water.

An investigation into why the system failed is under way. Jim Taylor, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the storm’s category downgrade won’t affect any proposed changes.

Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat, said: “This news further highlights the need for a full federal commitment to build the highest level of protection through levees and coastal restoration for New Orleans, south Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.”

Katrina’s strongest wind and highest storm surge ravaged the Mississippi coast. Measuring the surge’s height was difficult because many buildings were washed away, leaving few structures with high water marks, the report said. The best estimate was 27 feet high in Hancock, Miss.

Category 3 storms range from 111 mph to 130 mph, so Katrina was on the strong side of that ranking. Category 4 storms run from 131 mph to 155 mph. Katrina was a top-scale Category 5 with 175 mph winds while in the Gulf of Mexico.

Forecasters revised the storm’s strength after studying data from devices that were dropped into Katrina from hurricane hunter aircraft, hurricane specialist Richard Knabb and forecasters Jamie Rhome and Daniel Brown said in the center’s final report.

The change also came from reviewing readings from a device called a stepped frequency microwave radiometer, which measures wind speed by examining how sea foam is blown. Radar images taken by hurricane hunter aircraft also were used.

Although an accurate reading of the highest winds in the New Orleans area were made difficult by the failure of measuring stations, a NASA facility in eastern New Orleans measured a sustained wind of only about 95 mph, the report said.

It was likely that most of the city experienced winds of Category 1 or 2 strength, a range from 74 mph to 110 mph, the report said, although winds on the upper floors of high-rise buildings could be up to a category higher.

Katrina killed more than 1,300 people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and Alabama. It is expected to cost insurers at least $34.4 billion in claims.

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