Right Opinion

Katrina: Not Global Warming, and Not Worst-Case Scenario

Joe Bastardi · Aug. 28, 2015
Hurricane Katrina approaching New Orleans.

I don’t know if people remember but I caused quite a stir the Friday afternoon before Hurricane Katrina struck when, on national TV, I said it was coming for New Orleans. I reminded people that I had downplayed Ivan in New Orleans the year before when apparently there was a rumor the mayor, thinking it would hit the city, ordered 10,000 bodybags. Ivan was not their storm, but I knew exactly what kind of storm would result in a disaster. I will explain that below. In any case, I was recently reminded of all this at a dinner with some clients in Houston. One of them thanked me because, as my client, I called him at two o'clock in the afternoon when the European (ECMWF) computer model run came in confirming my worst fear: It was coming for New Orleans. In what I do, serving the client to keep them prepared comes first. The TV was, is and always will be secondary. That being said, I am always going to speak my mind on these matters.

I am not writing this to relive yesterday. I have kept out of all the Katrina hoopla; in fact, I look on with a bit of ironic amusement at the way people recall the storm. It’s like a 10-year high school reunion, where some of the things that are being said just don’t fit the overall missive. I can’t wait for the 25-year reunion. Should be good. You remember how those go: The 3-1 win in the districts turns into a 7-0 perfect game in the finals of the states. It’s like a weather version of Napoleon Dynamite‘s “Uncle Rico.”

The term I used for what Katrina would do was a “pincer movement” pushing water back through Lakes Bourne and Pontchartrain, with the water then coming back into New Orleans from hurricane force northwest winds on the backside. This was based on an idea I had read back when I was a child, in the February 1965 issue of Weatherwise on the review of Hurricane Hilda, 1964. The author made a point to say that if the storm had regained hurricane intensity east of New Orleans it might have flooded the city from the north. The point is that, even back in the 1960s, they were concerned about this. And, well, they should have been, as Category 4 Betsy in 1965 caused major problems there, but even that didn’t track in the ideal manner. Neither did Katrina, and people have to realize that no amount of man-made global warming clamor can change the fact it was not worst case. I said it then, and I will say it again as my contribution to the 10-year reunion: The 1947 hurricane, with Katrina’s intensity or greater (remember, Camille in 1969 was a Category 5 with a similar path to Katrina), would be the worst-case scenario.

Let’s look at the track of Katrina (photo credits: Wikipedia).

This endgame is similar to the Category 5 “Fist of Fury,” a smaller but more violent Camille in 1969.

Now notice Betsy, a giant of a storm, occurred  in 1965 despite an El Niño.

The track was south of the Mississippi River, so the worst storm surge came not through Lakes Bourne and Ponchartrain but from the southeast where the Delta can break it up. That being said, water came up so high, people were trapped in their attics! The mayor of New Orleans, before his Ivan misread, said for people to make sure they had axes, in reference to what folks had to do to get out of their houses because of Betsy. But even that was not the worst-case scenario.

Here is the ultimate track, with the intensity of any of these three storms: The 1947 Fort Lauderdale hurricane, a Category 4 storm, but not nearly as strong at New Orleans.

A 20-25 foot storm surge back through those lakes and New Orleans is rendered helpless. There is little anyone can do with an approach from the east-southeast, north of the mouth of the Mississippi.

This is certainly not global warming. It’s like with Sandy. Years before, I wrote a paper and did talks to insurance companies on what I called the “Philadelphia Story,” a storm worse than Sandy but of the same genre — one that came from the southeast. Why? Well, my dad, a meteorologist, would always pull out maps of Hurricane Hazel’s pattern (1954) then track hurricanes like the one in 1933 into the mid-Atlantic States, or the 1903 storm into Atlantic City, and observe: The question isn’t why it should happen, but why not. So it is here.

My contribution to the reunion is this: Katrina was not global warming, and it was not the worst-case scenario. And if a worst-case storm shows up, it should be apparent that it would not be global warming, either.

Joe Bastardi is chief forecaster at WeatherBELL Analytics, a meteorological consulting firm.

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