A Year Of Katrina: We Saw It Coming

By Brian 

We all knew it was coming.

Hurricane Katrina battered Florida before it began a deadly march across the Gulf Coast. As a category one hurricane, Katrina dumped a tremendous amount of rain on Florida.

Bryan Norcross, the director of meteorology for WFOR-TV in Miami and a CBS News hurricane analyst, anchored coverage of the storm.

“The big legacy of Katrina, for us, was the flooding in the southern end of Miami Dade county,” he recalls.

Before the storm even crossed the peninsula, Norcross was appearing on CBS News programs and warning coastal residents that Katrina could be a big one.

“There’s some possibility here that this is going to be a stronger storm by the time it gets to the coast,” he said on Aug. 24.

He had a similar message on the 25th: “Expect it to restrengthen, and it could — it could — be another hurricane for the Panhandle.”

By the 26th, he was mentioning Hurricane Camille and warning of a potential category 4 storm. And by the 27th, he was telling CBS viewers that a “devastating hurricane event” was coming.

Looking back, the news was coming through loud and clear.

“No one in a position of authority was, or certainly should have been, even mildly surprised,” Norcross says now.

By the 28th, Norcross was describing a “catastrophic event.” It was one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Gulf. Looking at a satellite picture, he called it “as perfect a hurricane as you’ve ever seen, if you can call a hurricane like this perfect.”

Almost immediately, meteorologists knew New Orleans had dodged a bullet, at least from the winds.

“Katrina was not as strong a hurricane,” he said on the next morning’s Early Show. “It had been back in the Gulf but not when it hit. The winds in New Orleans were only about 100 miles an hour.”

Looking back, Norcross says the cause of the disaster was a surprise.

“It really wasn’t the hurricane that was the cause of the New Orleans catastrophe,” he says. “It was caused by poor engineering, not by the hurricane.”

Certainly, the city still would have sustained significant damage from the wind and the rain. But the levee disaster was primarily an engineering failure.

“I don’t think that’s well understood,” he says. “It was a terrible terrible mistake, a tragic mistake that was made by the engineers when they built those levees, combined with a really poor administration of the levees. It was very clear, from the very very first day, the day that it happened. I was looking at the wind reports that were coming in, saying ‘we’re guardedly optimistic here that New Orleans isn’t going to get the worst of this.’ The wind was not at the level that the levees should have been threatened.”

Norcross thinks media outlets spent too much time concentrating on the coast during Katrina.

“The media, by the nature of media, has to be somewhere,” he says. “So they go to the coast and they report what the water does at the coast. But there was tremendous damage inland.”