Weather Service officials gave dire, accurate warnings before Katrina hit

Officials with the National Weather Service told House lawmakers Thursday they did everything within their power to inform federal, state and local authorities of the severity of Hurricane Katrina in the days before the storm hit, including issuing a chilling warning and making unprecedented telephone calls to the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi and the mayor of New Orleans.

By Aug. 26 at 10 p.m. Central Daylight Time, the Weather Service had determined the hurricane would be a Category 4 when it made landfall, and that it was headed to southeast Louisiana and New Orleans. The forecast turned out to be startlingly accurate and beat even the agency's own projection goals.

Agency officials detailed their actions and warnings during the first hearing of the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. The committee began its work mired in controversy, as Democrats have refused to join, arguing instead for an independent commission to investigate the response effort. Only two Democrats attended the hearing -- Reps. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., and Charlie Melancon, D-La. Neither have the power to vote on the committee.

Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said the committee will continue to hold hearings and conduct its investigation, regardless of whether Democrats join.

"It remains difficult to understand how government could respond so ineffectively to a disaster that was predicted for years, and for which specific dire warnings had been issued for days," Davis said. "If this is what happens when we have advance warning, I shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not."

Daily video and teleconferences were held starting Aug. 24 with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Max Mayfield, director of the National Weather Service's Tropical Prediction Center.

By 10 p.m. on Aug. 26, FEMA and state officials were told the hurricane was coming toward Mississippi and Louisiana, including New Orleans, Mayfield said. Between 8:30 and 9 the following evening, Mayfield called the governors of those states and the mayor of New Orleans, to personally tell them of the severity of the storm. Mayfield said he had only called a governor once before, and that was for Hurricane Lili in 2002.

Mayfield said he did not recall telling the governors or mayor that they should order evacuations, adding it was not his job to do so.

On Aug. 28 at 7 a.m., the National Weather Service began reporting that the hurricane would be "potentially catastrophic." Also on that day, the Weather Service in New Orleans issued a chilling, urgent message for the city and surrounding parishes with the title: "Devastating damage expected."

"Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks - perhaps longer," the message stated. "High-rise office and apartment buildings will sway dangerously - a few to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out."

"Power outages will last for weeks … as most power poles will be down and transformers destroyed," the message continued. "Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards."

At 4 p.m. on Aug. 28, the Weather Service issued another public advisory that some levees in the greater New Orleans area could be overtopped. Mayfield said he did not notify FEMA or officials in New Orleans that levees could be breached, only that there was a possibility that some levees could be overtopped.

Local parishes around New Orleans started mandatory evacuations on Aug. 27, Melancon said. The mandatory evacuation orders went into effect at 6 a.m. on Aug. 27 for the parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Lower Jefferson.

A mandatory evacuation went into effect for New Orleans and the rest of Jefferson Parish at 6 a.m. on Aug. 28, a day before the storm hit, Melancon added.

As the hurricane passed through New Orleans the morning of Aug. 29, Weather Service officials received notification at 8:12 a.m. that the Industrial Canal levee was giving way and a rush of water was submerging much of the Lower 9th Ward, said David Johnson, director of the agency.

Johnson said he did not tell the governors or mayor before the hurricane hit that levees might not hold.

Lawmakers praised the National Weather Service during the hearing, saying the agency performed exceptionally well.

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