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Katrina in a historical climate context

August 31, 2010

By Randy Cerveny

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina created a massive path of destruction throughout the Gulf States from Texas to Florida, hitting with particular vengeance in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It killed more than 1,200 people and continues to have a lasting impact on the region. Without a doubt, it was a very bad hurricane.

However, as a historical climatologist working with the World Meteorological Organization in accurately assessing and verifying weather extremes, I have noticed, particularly among the media, a tendency to overdramatize the event. I had heard directly and through a number of my students, media reports of Katrina even still today being referred to as the “worst natural disaster of all time.” While without a doubt, Katrina was very bad, it also without question has hardly been the worst natural disaster of all time.

Even in the United States, we have experienced stronger and deadlier hurricanes during the course of our 200-plus years of history. In 1900, for example, an unnamed hurricane (we didn’t start naming these tropical cyclones until the 1950s) slammed into the defenseless island of Galveston, Texas. That hurricane has been made famous by the excellent book “Isaac’s Storm” – the telling of the trials and tribulations of one of the leading forecasters of the time, Isaac Cline. But the critical feature with "Isaac’s Storm" is that the hurricane killed perhaps as many as 8,000 people and led to the creation of a 17-foot storm wall on the seaward side of the island.

And in terms of strength, many others hurricanes must take precedent over Katrina. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, Katrina ranked as a strong Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 130 mph. Thirty-six years earlier in 1969, in almost the same exact location, the strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States was the storm Hurricane Camille, which created a massive 25 storm surge of flooding and had sustained winds of more than 155 mph – a rare Category 5 hurricane.

But those storms don’t compare to the death toll associated with the deadliest tropical cyclone of all time. In 1972, a tropical cyclone traveled directly northward through the Bay of Bengal and slammed into the vulnerable land that was at that time called East Pakistan on the eastern side of India. The storm’s massive flooding though the swampy exposed lowlands killed perhaps as many as 300,000 people. Afterwards, the nation of Pakistan which controlled the region was slow in getting relief supplies to the area and the inhabitants revolted creating the country of Bangladesh. This was an incident when a horrific natural disaster of a tropical cyclone actually created an entirely new country.

So as we look back and remember the great tragedies associated with Hurricane Katrina, let’s be sure to also place the undoubtedly deadly hurricane in its correct place in the global history of such massive storms.

Cerveny is an ASU President’s Professor and World Meterological Organization Rapporteur of Climate Extremes.