"Certain Death": Looking at the Dire Katrina Bulletin Nine Years Later

Nine years ago today, the National Weather Service in New Orleans issued a sternly-worded statement to people in the path of Hurricane Katrina known as "The Bulletin." Its sharp language left little doubt Katrina was going to be the storm to beat all storms, and that residents in its path were in mortal danger.

For the most part, meteorologists have to give somewhat reserved statements when major disasters are afoot. They have to straddle the line between sounding the alarm that "the big one" is finally here and being accused by both the public and talking heads of peddling hype. On August 28, 2005, one day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office for New Orleans issued The Bulletin, which to this day stands as the scariest statement ever issued by the government's weather predicting agency.

Urgent – Weather Message

National Weather Service New Orleans LA

1011AM CDT Sun Aug 28 2005

…Devastating Damage Expected…

.Hurricane Katrina…a most powerful hurricane with unprecedented strength…rivaling the intensity of Hurricane Camille of 1969.

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.

The majority of industrial buildings will become non functional. Partial to complete wall and roof failure is expected. All wood framed low rising apartment buildings will be destroyed. Concrete block low rise apartments will sustain major damage…including some wall and roof failure.

High rise office and apartment buildings will sway dangerously…a few to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out.

Airborne debris will be widespread…and may include heavy items such as household appliances and even light vehicles. Sport utility vehicles and light trucks will be moved. The blow debris will create additional destruction. Persons…pets…and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death if struck.

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.

The vast majority of native trees will be snapped or uprooted. Only the heartiest will remain standing…but be totally defoliated. Few crops will remain. Livestock left exposed to the winds will be killed.

An inland hurricane wind warning is issued when sustained winds near hurricane force…or frequent gusts at or above hurricane force…are certain within the next 12 to 24 hours.

Once tropical storm and hurricane force winds onset…do not venture outside!

A few weeks after the storm, NBC Nightly News interviewed Robert Ricks, the meteorologist who wrote The Bulletin. When Brian Williams asked "did part of you want to be wrong?," Ricks responded:

I would much rather have been wrong in this one. I would much rather be talking to you and taking the heat and crying wolf. But our local expertise said otherwise. You know, "Hey, let's gear up for the big one, this is going to be the big one."

Unfortunately, one of the most severe hurricanes to hit the United States in the wake of Katrina was Sandy in 2012, and the National Hurricane Center was bureaucratically forced to bungle the handling of that storm. As the hurricane was forecast to undergo (and indeed underwent) the transition from a hurricane to an intense nor'easter just hours before landfall, the NHC could not and did not issue any hurricane warnings north of the Delmarva Peninsula. This created widespread confusion for the public, leading many residents to downplay the situation and not regard Sandy as a serious threat.

The lack of a hurricane warning (which was replaced by a "high wind warning" in many locations) left forecasters with one hell of a time trying to properly convey the threats the storm posed in a way that would make people pay attention. One of the sternest warnings came from Gary Szatkowski, a meteorologist with the NWS office in Philadelphia.

"Certain Death": Looking at the Dire Katrina Bulletin Nine Years Later

He hit the right tone with his personal plea for people to heed evacuation notices if they lived in an area under the gun for the worst of Sandy's flooding. People make fun of "sternly-worded letters," but hey, they work! People are more likely to listen to the weather forecasts if — only in the most life-threatening situations — forecasters actually mention the possibility of dying.

While The Bulletin issued in advance of Katrina's landfall was (and hopefully will remain) the most dire statement the agency has ever written, it was part of an ongoing, larger effort on the part of forecasters to make the most serious situations stand out from the "run-of-the-mill" warnings.

Since 1999, the National Weather Service has experimented with different ways to differentiate common severe weather warnings from the most serious disasters. The crying wolf effect is a major sociological factor that inhibits the effectiveness of severe weather warnings, and it's the foremost reason people ignore urgent warnings issued for events such as tornadoes and hurricanes.

The most common "dire alert" issued by the National Weather Service is called a "tornado emergency," which is one level up from a tornado warning. The first tornado emergency was issued on May 3, 1999 in advance of the historic mile-wide tornado that swept through the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City, killing three dozen people and causing more than one billion dollars worth of damage.

Tornado emergencies are now an operational product, with forecasters issuing one when a damaging tornado is confirmed and moving into a populated area. Since 1999, National Weather Service offices have only issued 99 tornado emergencies out of a total of 45,866 tornado warnings issued between the beginning of 1999 and earlier this month. This means that only about 0.2% of all tornado warnings issued are upgraded to tornado emergencies.

Whether it's a short "catastrophic damage expected" line thrown into a tornado warning or The Bulletin itself, telling residents point-blank that they could die and their neighborhoods will be destroyed is a much-needed splash of reality for incredible storms on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Oklahoma City tornado. If any good can come out of The Bulletin's issuance, it's that it shows forecasters just how much realness they have to inject into the situation to get people to take a potential catastrophe seriously.

[Images: NOAA / NWS Philadelphia/Mount Holly]

Update: In response to this article, several meteorologists have noted that the Katrina bulletin was not accurate because it overstated the wind threat and didn't mention the overwhelming storm surge that caused the vast majority of the storm's 1,800 deaths. However, I agree that it was "right for the wrong reasons" as it effectively got the message across the Katrina was going to be both the most severe and the deadliest storm to hit the area in more than 35 years.