As Hurricane Katrina barreled towards the Gulf Coast, peaking at Category 5 strength while feasting on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, meteorologists around the country prepared to deliver one of the most crucial and life-saving forecasts in history.
While forecasters had no way to determine that the storm would produce $108 billion in damage, becoming the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, and claim nearly 2,000 lives, they knew that the storm would be destructive and that a devastating situation was about to unfold.
AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Bernie Rayno said among his fellow forecasters in the office, there was a belief that the storm was going to be a problem, especially after it rapidly increased in size following its initial encounter with the coast of Florida on Aug. 25-26.
How Katrina became so massive, so quickly, was an "unbelievable sight" but also a scary one, Rayno said. As he pointed out, once a storm enters the Gulf, it becomes virtually trapped by the surrounding landmasses and then it's only a question of where the storm will deliver damaging impacts.
At one point, Katrina probably spanned about three-quarters of the Gulf of Mexico, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said.
Three days before the storm made landfall as a Category 3, AccuWeather meteorologists urged residents to take action as they warned of a "catastrophe in the making in New Orleans" and predicted that "Katrina could be one of the top Gulf hits in modern times."
"Katrina's huge storm surge will likely breach levees to the southeast of the city, and winds from the north will push the waters of Lake Pontchartrain over the levees on the north side. The resulting flooding may overwhelm the city's pumps and parts of the city could remain under water for days or weeks," AccuWeather Meteorologists said the day before Katrina's landfall.
One of the indelible memories for Rayno was on when he heard former AccuWeather Director of Forecasting Ken Reeves, who later passed away in 2012, state that he didn't believe the levees would hold and estimated up to 70 percent of New Orleans would be underwater. Later that night, one day before landfall, AccuWeather forecasters took to the air to deliver the dire prediction.
As it turned out, after the failure of the federal levee system, a staggering 80 percent of the city was inundated.
Rayno, who had gone on the air with several news organizations to convey the severity of the situation, said he didn't sleep much the night before Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall in southeastern Louisiana. Predicting devastation can put meteorologists in an unbelievable situation, he said.
If the forecast is accurate, it ultimately means lives will likely be lost. If the storm is much less severe and dangerous than predicted, forecasters lose credibility and trust with the public.
"It's tremendous conflict; all you can hope for is that all the precautions were taken, that if you are indeed correct," he said.
Robert Ricks, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service New Orleans/Baton Rouge office in Slidell, Louisiana, said it was the morning of Aug. 27, when he first glimpsed the enormous size of Katrina's eye on satellite imagery as it moved away from Key West, Florida. It was right then he knew this would be an unprecedented event.
Ricks was the coordinator in his office the day before Katrina's landfall. As the storm churned ever closer to his home turf, using a combination of past hurricane experiences and forecaster training, he issued a stark inland hurricane wind warning that pulled no punches about the magnitude of the storm, and began simply with: "devastating damage expected."
Other sections distinctly covered the longer-term consequences of what would happen after Katrina moved through the area:
"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."
"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."
It also said that airborne debris would become widespread and strong enough to move household appliances along with light vehicles and trucks.
"PERSONS...PETS...AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK," it read.
The statement, which can be read in its entirety here, was one of several Katrina-related objects that were later curated by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and is also in the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, in Dallas, Texas.
Ricks said there was nothing out of the ordinary about writing the statement and it felt similar to issuing one of the hundreds of severe thunderstorm or tornado warnings in his career. It didn't become an unordinary event until he received several phone calls shortly after it went out, asking about the validity of the product issued and if it indeed came from their office.
After things had settled down, and Ricks had confirmed that he had indeed issued the statement, he was brewing a cup of coffee when a chill came over him.
"I was like ‘wow, what did I just do?' then that's when it started... second thoughts and things like that crossed my mind, 'this is something not routine at this point,'" he said.
It was only then, he said, when he thought it had a chance to backfire, but Ricks and his fellow staff members kept the same tone of the warning and subsequently issued it several more times prior to landfall.
The statement was created using ready-made statements that described various impacts that correlated with the different intensities of hurricanes and had been previously organized by the NWS office in Tampa Bay.
As he scanned the impacts, Ricks realized that all of them applied to Katrina so he couldn't leave any of them out of his warning. After experiencing many previous hurricanes, including Camille in 1969, he had a basis of reference to utilize when determining what impacts would be felt.
The warning turned out to be a bit of a paradox, Ricks said, as the catastrophic impacts suffered in Louisiana were more attributed to storm surge and not wind.
One key component of the warning was the phrase "rivaling the strength of Hurricane Camille of 1969." In the past decade, Ricks said social science has indicated that was a bit of a deterrent. Meaning, while Ricks was trying to communicate the intensity of the storm, people internalized their own impacts that they remembered from Camille. If they lived in an area that wasn't greatly impacted from Camille, they would think it would be fine to ride out Katrina.
"But the other impacts that were included in there, those I think hit home and then that got people to thinking, ‘wow if this is the case, then I don't want to be part of it,'" he said.
Looking back, Ricks said he was glad that he crafted the warning, because he was simply looking to provide the public with a relevant service, which is why he became a meteorologist and eventually wanted to work for the NWS.
"However, I'm hoping I never have to do it again," he said.
Kottlowski said he also remembered people comparing the situation to Camille, which was a more compact hurricane, so therefore its concentrated energy was over a much smaller area, he said.
"Katrina was three times as large as what Camille was," Kottlowski said. "So its energy was spread over a much larger area. So it affected a much larger area of the coast."
For Kottlowski, it was at least three days in advance of Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast when he knew there would be major impacts. Reading the strong forecast language wasn't a surprise, because Katrina was such a bad storm, he said.
"I think that the surprising thing for me was how people didn't react to it as much as they should have. A lot of people did [react], but people have to keep in mind that any major city that is hit by a major storm like that, they're gonna have problems."
"The problem is you never know how people are going to react to it. You never know what the exact outcome is going to be," Kottlowski said.