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Did we learn anything from Katrina?

10 years ago today, Katrina made landfall in Florida as a category 1 hurricane. Her winds measured 85 mph with gusts up to 97 mph. She passed directly over the National Hurricane Center and crossed the Everglades, moving into the Gulf of Mexico temporarily weakened after her passage over southern Florida.

Unless you lived in or had interests in Florida, you might have forgotten that little bit of hurricane history. One of the most devastating storms on record made landfall on the mainland of the United States more than once.

Katrina then spent a couple of days strengthening into a category 5 hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall as a weaker - but still major - category 3 storm at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Due to the lay of the land in the border area of Mississippi and Louisiana, Katrina also has landfalls attributed to her in St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes in Louisiana.

From those points, Katrina moved toward New Orleans and brought the devastation most of us witnessed on television from the comfort of our own dry homes.

According to the National Hurricane Center, Katrina was the third deadliest hurricane to strike the United States - being directly responsible for approximately 1200 deaths. She was a dire reminder of how vulnerable the Gulf and Atlantic coasts are to hurricanes.

Looking back a decade later, it is easy to wonder if we truly put the lessons learned to use.

Back in June, I had the privilege of listening to a panel of experts discuss what we learned from Hurricane Katrina during the American Meteorological Society's 43rd Conference on Broadcast Meteorology.

Former Director of the National Hurricane Center, Bill Read, reviewed communication issues that were revealed in hindsight. One was that we need to be aware of how the public perceives and compares the current storm to past storms. Very rarely are any two storms exactly alike. Their paths may be similar, but their strength, winds, timing with the tides, etc., will likely be very different. Read stated that if the public is comparing one storm to another, then meteorologists should as well, but with the mission of pointing out the differences between the storms.

Another panelist, Mariaelena Bartesaghi of the University of South Florida who holds a Ph.D. in communication, noted that the first responders followed a plan that was laid out well before Katrina. The plan might have worked, but there was a rigidity to it and as the situation progressed, the plan did not evolve to adapt to changing conditions. So, in the end, much of it failed due to lack of flexibility in the face of reality.

Read and others have pointed out that we have not updated our building codes to withstand more than a minimal hurricane, but the population at the coasts continue to grow.

While our ability to forecast storm path and strength improves every year, our preparation for them seems lacking. When we have relatively quiet hurricane seasons, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. When we see weak storms being tracked in the Caribbean, it might be easy to brush it off as just a passing curiosity as we were able to do with Danny.

Now we have Tropical Storm Erika taking aim at Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. She is expected to strengthen into a Hurricane by Saturday, and it's too early to tell how much farther her track will take her or how strong she might be more than five days from now. I suggest anyone reading this with interests on the coasts go ahead and revisit your hurricane plan. Are you ready? Remember (as I always say) it only takes one storm.

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