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

Katrina: A lesson in risk mismanagement

* 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.


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  |  10:45 AM ET, 08/30/2010

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