Weather Nerd

Apocalypse Not

Hurricane Gustav has been formally downgraded to a Category 2, and it is now coming ashore right about where the National Hurricane Center predicted it would, just south of Houma. Radar shows the northwestern core — or “eyewall,” though I’m not sure that term really applies in this case — getting a wee bit stronger, just in time to wallop Jim Cantore & Co. there:


Because of Gustav’s weakened state — which, 36 hours ago, no one could have predicted with any confidence — and its landfall location, it now appears almost certain that New Orleans will be spared:

Army Corps of Engineers chiefs say they anticipate no storm surge flooding due to Hurricane Gustav, which is turning out to be far less than what was previously forecast by the National Weather Service.

Live TV reports also suggest little if any serious wind damage in New Orleans — overhyped cries of “OMG!! DAMAGED TRAFFIC LIGHTS!!” notwithstanding. And although there are reports of some water coming over the Industrial Canal, the Arms Corps believes the wall itself will hold. Of course, we thought New Orleans had “dodged a bullet” with Katrina at first, too. So, cross your fingers. But if the levees fail, it will be because they (again) failed to live up to Army Corps promises, not because of Gustav’s strength and location. The Weather Channel is predicting 6 to 9 feet of storm surge, peaking in the next couple of hours. That will be enhanced in some of the canals. But the levee system should be able to withstand a surge like this.

With regard to the statement that Gustav is “turning out to be far less than what was previously forecast,” that’s not really fair, IMHO; “previously feared” would be more accurate. The official forecast in recent days has consistently called for something less than a worst-case catastrophe, but it was way too close for comfort, and there were plausible alternative scenarios whereby Gustav would be a calamity. The contemporaneous plausibility of these calamitous scenarios is not retroactively invalidated by the fact that, thankfully, a different scenario has occurred — indeed, a scenario more friendly to New Orleans than anyone dared hope Saturday night, when Gustav was a 150 mph monster that seemed destined to get stronger.

It is crucial that blogospheric and journalistic snark not take hold here. We must not use 20/20 hindsight to dismiss Gustav as having been naught but hype. There are, and will continue to be, plentiful examples of ridiculous media overhype, and those are deeply unfortunate. But the media always misbehaves, and not just with regard to weather. Cable news is buffoonish. This should surprise no one. What matters, though, is this: the forecasts were not “hype,” and the evacuations were not “hype.” Gustav had the legitimate potential to be far worse than this, and decisions had to be made at a time when we could not depend on the more favorable scenario that has instead occurred.

Yes, Mayor Nagin should have expressed himself with less certitude when he called Gustav the “mother of all storms.” But the precautions that he and others ordered, including the highly successful evacuation of New Orleans, were absolutely necessary at the time those decisions had to be made. That much cannot be seriously disputed. And it is deeply irresponsible to feed people’s sense of cynicism and complacency about hurricane warnings by carelessly suggesting otherwise.

P.S. Meanwhile, for the folks in Houma and environs, all this talk about how Gustav “could have been worse” would probably seem rather bizarre, if they could see it. A landfalling Category 2 is no walk in the park, particularly when you live in a marshland. This is, and will continue to be, a hellish day there. Let’s all remembe that there’s more to Louisiana than New Orleans, and just because our teevees show us that there’s no damage in the French Quarter doesn’t mean people aren’t suffering elsewhere.

UPDATE:Small overtopping” at the Industrial Canal. Also this:

St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens and Parish President Craig Taffaro were on the Claiborne Avenue bridge, checking the water levels. Water was lapping over the wall on the Upper Ninth Ward side, but had not yet overtopped the side closest to the Lower Ninth Ward.

“It’s better than seeing cement collapsing but it’s not good,” Taffaro said.

“We’re worried about the pressure building up on this wall,” he said, pointing at the corner of the floodwall nearest to the Claiborne Avenue Bridge.

Meanwhile, a barge and two boats are loose in the Industrial Canal, a boat is sinking in the Mississippi River, and a power line is down across Interstate 10. Much more at the New Orleans Hurricane Center.

P.S. In comments, “Ragman” makes an excellent point:

Those who would try and characterize the government and NHC actions of the last few days as overreactions, are the same ones who’d crucify them if they underreacted.