Saturday, August 29, 2015

Remembering Katrina; My Personal Experience

When I was young, I would oftentimes watch those 'it-could-happen-tomorrow' shows on The Weather Channel where they would run through worse case scenarios of big weather events in big cities. Watching those shows was neat, but deep down I figured it most likely would never least not in my lifetime. I remember watching one episode that went through the what if scenario of a big hurricane hitting New Orleans. It talked about how parts of the city sit below sea level and that the worst case scenario would be a big hurricane pushing all the surrounding water into the city. Again, interesting to watch, but not something I ever thought I'd see. 10 years ago, I watched that worst-case-scenario play out on TWC once again. This time, though, it wasn't a show...

In 2004, I moved to Mobile, AL to chase my dream of becoming a Meteorologist. I began attending the University of South Alabama, a nice school with a great Meteorology program, located on the Gulf Coast. I didn't go there for a tropical focus (my focus has always been convective/severe weather), but the tropics quickly came to me.

2004 Hurricane Season Tracks
2005 Hurricane Season Tracks

2004 and 2005 (my first two years of college) were very busy in the tropical Atlantic. Being at a school along the coast, that meant a lot of real world learning/experience.

That first semester at South, I had only been in class for a few weeks before a major hurricane (Ivan) came knocking. It made landfall just east of Mobile on September 16, 2004. That, alone, was quite an experience for me, especially since I had just moved to the area a few months prior. But, that's a story for another day. The point of mentioning the 2004 season is that I moved to the Gulf Coast just in time for a very active couple of years in the tropics and the fact that the 2005 season was proceeded by an active period for residents along much of the Gulf Coast.

2005 quickly picked up where 2004 left off. Storms started developing early in the summer ahead of the typical peak in tropical activity. First came Arlene in June, making landfall as a tropical storm just east of Mobile. Next came Cindy which passed just west of Mobile as a tropical storm in July (interestingly, this storm actually made landfall as a weak hurricane very near where Katrina would later make landfall). Oh, and the season just kept going. Dennis followed quickly on Cindy's heels, making landfall east of Mobile as a major hurricane. In case you aren't keeping track...that's 3 tropical systems to pass near Mobile in a one month period. For Mobile, the area escaped the worst of the damage, especially considering what Dennis did to parts of the Florida Panhandle. I would say, though, that those storms and the storms of 2004 were making people along the north-central Gulf Coast grow weary.

Then came late-August of 2005. Thunderstorm activity in and around the Bahamas gradually became more organized and on August 23rd, a tropical depression developed over the southeastern Bahamas. The system continued to intensify and was named Katrina on August 24th. On the 25th, it made landfall as a hurricane along the SE coast of Florida.

Friday AM NHC Forecast Track
I remember going to class Friday morning, Aug 26 and one of my Meteorology instructors showed the latest forecast track from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) which took the storm east of Mobile (image to the right). As you can see, Mobile was in the cone of uncertainty, but the official forecast took it well east of Mobile, much to the relief of Mobilians. What I remember most about the class that day was someone asking about class being cancelled the following week. Our instructor said, 'Don't worry...we'll have class on Monday'. To be clear, that is not at all a jab at my instructor. I point that out because I think many in Mobile shared the sentiment that it would be that big of a deal for Mobile.

After class that day, I headed to work. At the time I was a cashier at Winn-Dixie. I was scheduled to work from 2-9 pm or so. I went to work knowing there would be some talk about the storm, but with the forecast track taking it east of Mobile, I didn't expect too much excitement. It was fairly busy that afternoon, but nothing too surprising at first. Then, somewhere between 4-5pm, there was a marked increase in people coming into the store. Rush hour was always busy at the store with people stopping in on their way home from work. But this was different. I remember watching the front doors of the store with what seemed like a non-stop wave of people coming in. Chatter about the storm was increasing and I soon found out why.
5pm NHC Forecast Track
Notice the shift that occurred from the 11am forecast to the 5pm forecast. The new forecast came out at 5pm EDT which was 4pm CDT (right around the time of increasing traffic at the store). Clearly, word had quickly gotten around that there was a significant change to the forecast. Being very hurricane savvy, Mobilians didn't waste time preparing. This track painted a worst-case scenario for the Mobile area (a large hurricane moving up just west of town with the eye wall passing over the city and pushing a surge of water straight up Mobile Bay). The rest of that day at work was a blur and I can't even remember what time I got off. I remember looking down at my register at some point during the barrage of people and seeing a cold can of Coke sitting there. Someone was going around buying Cokes for all of the cashiers, knowing that we were working like crazy. On a side note, random acts of kindness go a long way!

I continued to work through the weekend and it stayed very busy. I helped close down the store Saturday night, August 27th. In preparation for the storm, we boarded up the front windows of the store, closing off all, but one of our front doors so that people could get in and out. Leaving work Saturday night, I had no idea what I would come back to or even when I would come back to work.

I can't speak for all Meteorologists, but when there is a big event threatening, it is hard to go to sleep. That night after work I looked at model data, read discussions, and watched the news. At some point I crashed. At this point, I should say that Katrina was looking strong/healthy, but not off-the-charts impressive to me. That all changed when I woke up Sunday morning, August 28th, to see this:
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Warnings from the media, the National Weather Service (NWS), etc were great in this event, but tack on a picture like this and you will really get people's attention. While I can't speak for other areas, I can say that on Sunday morning (Aug 28) when this image was taken, people in Mobile really seemed to take even more notice than before. On my way into church that morning, I remember seeing people rushing around to do last-minute preparations. My guess is that some of those people didn't the storm as seriously at first until they saw this image. It's like watching a tornado bearing down on your's simply hard to ignore.

After church, I headed to my apartment to make some last-minute preparations, then went back to church where I planned to ride out the storm with several college friends and a few people from church. Being that the church was a solid brick building, I assumed it would be safer than my non-brick apartment. Most of the day Sunday (Aug 28) was fairly uneventful. Outer bands of the storm started hitting the Mobile area Sunday evening. The bands had some gusty winds, and even some lightning, but nothing too significant. It really was more or less the calm before the storm. The church I was staying at was located on one of the busiest streets in Mobile. That night, we only saw a car go by every now and then...eerily quiet for such a big city.

Late that night, I did a quick check of the news before heading to bed. At this point, Katrina was a 160-mph hurricane. The forecast track had shifted west and landfall was now expected along the SE Louisiana coastline. Still a bad track for Mobile, but it wasn't looking like the worst-case scenario like it did a couple days prior.

As I laid down for the night, I could hear the wind start to pick up outside. At some point in the middle of the night, I was awakened by the sound of something banging on the window near where I was sleeping. I got up to see that a piece of metal had been broken loose and was repeatedly hitting the window. By the time I got up Monday morning, August 28, the wind was really starting to increase. The squalls had arrived and there were frequent strong to severe wind gusts. I was able to watch the news for about an hour or so, but around 7 or 8am, the power went off (and that would be the last time we would have power for several days).

As the wind increased, so did the damage. At one point we heard a loud noise on the roof of the something large rolling across it. A large section of the roof of the building had literally peeled off and then landed on the cars below. Fortunately my car was missed, but some of my friends were not so fortunate. One car in particular had a 2x4 go straight through the windshield and into the floor board.

With part of the roof gone, water was now leaking down into the building. We quickly moved everything from that side of the building to other parts of the building to limit the amount of water damage. Some additional damage occurred at the church, but by then end of the day Monday, the worst was over as Katrina made quick progress inland.With part of the roof missing, me and the other people I was staying with had to move to a different building that still had a roof intact. We stayed there through Monday night.

On Tuesday, Aug 29, the storm was now well inland and it was time for assessment and cleanup. Part of the assessment at this point was figuring out what to do. The city was without power and some of my friends who had stayed decided to leave and head out of town knowing that school wouldn't be back in session for awhile. It was interesting, because I'm not sure people around the area knew, exactly, what all had transpired. The Univ. of South Alabama, for example, kept only cancelling classes one day at a time. Eventually, though, they finally said school will be cancelled until further notice (I'm sure after realizing just how far-reaching the impacts were with the storm).

I eventually made my way back to my apartment on Tuesday (Aug 28). Trees and wires were down all over town and many homes had sustained minor to significant damage. Much of the damage appeared to be from trees falling onto houses. One mobile home I drove by, though, had been completely flattened. So, there were certainly pockets of more significant damage. One such area of damage was right along Mobile Bay.

Large ad sign through a building
Typical roof damage around town

On a side note, there was an apartment complex along the Bay that I was hoping to move into in August that year. I was really disappointed that it didn't work out at first, but in the end I am very glad it didn't work out...

Apartment complex I had tried to rent a few weeks before the storm hit

 When I got to my complex (that was further inland), I was relieved to find my building still in one piece. That wasn't the case, though, for other buildings in my complex. The building right next to mine as well as several others had sustained significant siding and roof damage. My building only sustained some minor roof damage.

Apartment building next to mine

Meals that week consisted of eating when you could. All of the food in my fridge had gone bad, so all that was left was dried goods. Gotta love cereal! I did get a meal or two from friends who were cooking what they could salvage on grills. It was like one big camp fire around town as many other people were doing the same thing. At night, sleeping was tough with no A/C and summer-time temps continuing. Each night there was a buzz in the air as people all over were running generators. I remember, too, just how dark it was at night. Mobile was never dark at night. But, with no power, it was eerily pitch-black. I should say, though, that as rough as it is sleeping in a hot apartment with no A/C, it doesn't at all compare to sleeping in a stadium or a bridge or under the stars (like many people in New Orleans had to do). And, at least I still had a home (something that many along Katrina's path couldn't say that week).

At my job at Winn-Dixie, people just showed up to work when they could. The store had generators to run the cash registers and a few lights, but that was about it. With school out, I just went to work and worked when I could. The freezers and coolers didn't have power, so all that food was going bad. I remember going back to the dairy section at one point and seeing dough all over the place. The heat had caused many of the refrigerated pizza dough, cookie dough, etc cans to pop and spill out everywhere. Some people would buy the cold stuff because we couldn't stop them, but there really wasn't much left that was good. Mostly, people were just buying dried goods. I've got to say, though, that people were fairly calm and reasonable. We did what we could to help people out, but cards only worked sporadically and cash was limited to what we had in the store.

At some point that week, I began to run out of gas. Lesson learned. In the future, I will always fill up before a big event. I was tight on cash before the storm, but I still should have put more than a half a tank in. Anyways, getting gas was a day-long affair. With many areas still without power, some stations weren't open or weren't pumping gas. Those that were pumping gas had VERY long lines. The first station I went to ran out while I waited in line.

By the second station, I was running on E and wasn't sure I'd make it. But, fortunately, I made it just in time. Many stations were capping people off at 20 gallons or so. Because of all the craziness, police were assigned to some of the stations to keep things orderly. On a related note, police were also assigned to some of the bigger intersections in town with power out and, in some cases, few or no traffic lights left hanging. It was weird to pull up to an intersection with 6+ lanes and only see one traffic lights left hanging.

A week after the storm had hit, the power gradually came back on for much of the city, classes resumed, and some normalcy could be felt. That said, normal would take months and even years to return to the region. And, even 10 years later, there are still some areas where pre-Katrina normals haven't come back.

My Katrina experience was certainly an interesting one, but I have to say that I was incredibly fortunate compared to many others along the Gulf Coast. I still had a home to go back to and thousands of families could not say the same thing. My parents (who lived in Connecticut at the time) took in one of those homeless family's for several months. The couple, from New Orleans, told my parents that they saw their flooded house on the news one day and decided to never go back. I can't even imagine leaving your home and just not going back. They literally started over and I believe are still living a new life in CT. I would imagine that story played out over and over for many people along the Gulf Coast.

As we all reflect on Katrina, I want to remember those who lost so much (homes, livelihoods, friends, families). I've heard some amazing stories of people who, despite all that, still carried on and worked hard to rebuild. The Gulf Coast is a great region in the US that took a sucker punch to the face...and not just from Katrina, but from several tropical storms and hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, from Texas to Florida. The entire region felt the effects in some way or another from the Hurricane seasons those years.

I also want to remember all of those people involved in forecasting and warning for that event. I'm sure countless hours of energy and overtime went into preparing the people of the Gulf Coast as best as they knew how. Meteorologists from all over the region went above and beyond to get the message across. As a Meteorologist, I have always looked up to those men and women and hope to be just as bold, calm, and informative in the whatever hazardous weather events I may face in my career. In that same breath, one cannot forget the work of first-responders to prepare, evacuate, and rescue those in danger...true heroes in my book.

I certainly will never forget what I experienced those years and all that happened to the region. I learned many lessons during Katrina both personally and as a Meteorologist that continue to impact how I plan for and forecast for big weather events to this day. I hope as a region and a Nation, the lessons learned from that event will also continue to carry over into future big weather events.


  1. I remember this season ...and from a mom's point of view ...let me just say, I prayed an awful lot for you , especially since we were so far away ...from Alabama to CT. It's good to remember and thank God for His grace and continue to hold those up in prayer who are still grieving losses. Thanks for giving us that opportunity through sharing your own experience .

    1. Yeah, things could have been a lot worse, especially if I had moved into that apartment on the Bay! Really glad that didn't work out.