Looking Back on Hurricane Katrina and the Monster 2005 Season
Tropics Have Been Relatively Quiet Since Record Breaking Season in Atlantic
Last week marked the 10th Anniversary of the most deadly and devastating storm in the modern era in the United States. Despite mercifully weakening just before landfall near Buras, Louisiana with Category Three strength 125 mile per hour winds after being as strong as a record making Category Five Hurricane with 175 mile per hour winds and a minimum central pressure of 902 millibars or 26.64 inches of Hg. Katrina then made a second landfall near the Louisiana/Mississippi border with 120 mph winds. The combination of the weakening with a track that took the storm’s strongest side east of New Orleans appeared to put the Big Easy in the clear. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
A near natural disaster had become a major man-made disaster as the levee system around New Orleans failed, and waters began pouring into the surrounding parishes such as St. Bernard’s, and the section of the city known as the Lower Ninth Ward. Meanwhile, further to the east, Katrina was still powerful and large enough to generate a storm surge even greater than the monster storm of August 1969 known as Hurricane Camille. The storm struck many, if not all of the same towns along the Mississippi Gulf Coast such as Gulfport, Biloxi, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, and Pascagoula, and brought a storm surge that ended up being the highest ever in North America.
Hurricane Katrina ended up killing some 1,800 people, which seemed unfathomable in this day and age. On top of that, the storm left at least $80 billion dollars in damage, which is three times more than the previous high mark from a natural disaster set by Hurricane Andrew when it impacted Homestead and South Florida back in August 1992. The storm also brought out the worst in a country that is supposed to be the leader of the “free world.” Katrina exposed problems with federal government agencies such as FEMA, and even more glaring, the lack of coordination between local, state, and federal agencies so that the necessary resources could efficiently be distributed to those directly impacted by the storm.
Two examples of that failure were deploying resources such as National Guard Troops, buses, and other kinds of essentials to those affected in shelters of last resort such as the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. Numerous horror stories from these two sites were brought into viewers homes by all the cable news and regular broadcast news networks. The storm’s aftermath provided an image of the United States that wasn’t one of superpower, but instead one of a third world country. It demonstrated how out of touch politicians in Washington and Louisiana had grown so far out of touch with its constituents in New Orleans. In addition, Katrina’s aftermath also showed the wide chasm between rich and poor in the United States.
The 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season didn’t stop with Katrina though. As a matter of fact, the year produced an astounding five Category Five Hurricanes on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. Those kind of numbers are usually only seen with typhoons in the Western Pacific. However, the combination of several factors such as abundant moisture around the Atlantic Basin, above normal sea surface temperatures, La Nina conditions in the Pacific that brought about favorable upper level wind conditions, and the positioning of the subtropical ridge in the Atlantic, which helped drive these powerful storms into the Gulf of Mexico, and over the Loop Current there, where conditions were optimal for explosive tropical development. Katrina, Rita, and Wilma were prime examples of the effect of the Loop Current.
During the historic 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season, there were a total of 31 depressions, 28 named storms, 15 hurricanes, and 7 major hurricanes. Of those 7 major storms, 71 percent of them reached the highest level possible for a tropical cyclone, which is extremely rare. It is very rare to have one Category Five storm in the Atlantic during the course of the season. So, when you have five: Dennis, Emily, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, that is record book material. Recently, I put together an article on the busy season in the WESTPAC where there have been 6 Super Typhoons of Category Five strength on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. This has been largely due to the emergence of the strongest El Nino at least since 1998. Remember, ENSO produces above normal sea surface temperatures and favorable upper level wind conditions in the Pacific. Rita appeared on its way to give another blow to the Big Easy.
Like Katrina a little less than a month earlier, Hurricane Rita tracked over South Florida and the Florida Keys and then grew into a monster as it traversed the Loop Current. The storm grew to be an even more powerful Category Five Hurricane than Katrina was in terms of wind (180 mph) and pressure (895 mb or 26.43 inches of Hg). Like Katrina though, Rita eventually weakened before making landfall, and spared the major population centers of New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana as it made landfall over to Louisiana Bayou. About a month after that, Hurricane Wilma spun up in the Northwestern Caribbean, and approached the Yucatan Penninsula. The storm grew to be even a notch better than Katrina and Rita with winds of 185 mph and the lowest pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin at 882 millibars or 26.05 inches of Hg surpassing the marks set by Hurricane Gilbert and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. After reaching its peak intensity, Wilma began feeling the effects of shear from a dipping jet stream over the United States, but it did re-energize before clobbing South Florida from west to east and causing significant damage along the Sunshine State’s Gold Coast.
Apparently, the 2005 Atlantic Season squeezed more than enough out of the earth’s atmosphere. Since that time, there hasn’t been a landfalling major hurricane in the United States. True, there has been active seasons such as 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2012 with deadly and devastating storms such as Gustav, Ike, Irene, and Sandy, but none of them approached the pure power that the 2005 storms had. In addition, there have been quite a few below normal hurricane seasons since then including 2006, 2007, 2009, 2013, and 2014. The change in behavior pattern in the Atlantic since the 2005 season may be an indication that the active cycle that dominated the basin since 1995 may be coming to an end.