Monday, September 01, 2008

Gustav update

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Brendan Loy is a hurricane blogger who was one of the first to bring warning of Katrina's potential threat to New Orleans in 2005. As such, his latest update on Gustav is well worth reading:

New Orleans will most likely dodge a bullet, avoiding catastrophic flooding, unless the levees perform worse than expected. This will not be the “mother of all storms.” There may be significant flooding in the West Bank, but if so, it will be mostly because of the levee system’s fragile and incomplete state, not because of anything extraordinary about Gustav. In any case, we should not see a citywide repeat of Katrina — let alone something worse, as once seemed quite possible — assuming the Army Corps of Engineers has done its job this time.

The media should, at this point, be ramping down the hype about Gustav. Twenty-four hours ago, the hype was justified, and the evacuation of New Orleans was totally appropriate and necessary. But now, anyone who is still treating Gustav like some sort of unprecedented apocalypse is just ignoring the data. There will be death and destruction, yes, but certainly not on a “storm of the century” scale. Gustav is no longerexpected to rival Hurricane Katrina in its destructive power.” And the worst effects will be south and west of the Crescent City — again, assuming the New Orleans levees do their job. The storyline now isn’t, will the monstrous Hurricane Gustav destroy New Orleans? It is, will the levees perform up to snuff this time, and survive a surge that they manifestly should be able to handle? (This is a reasonable question, of course, since they also should have handled Katrina.)

Journalists often fail to grasp how quickly and drastically things can change with hurricanes. Yesterday evening, we were looking at a 150 mph monster in the Caribbean, and imagining intensification in the Gulf today to perhaps 175 mph, with limited opportunity for pre-landfall weakening. Instead, thanks to its totally unexpected post-Cuba weakening and failure to intensify significantly over the Loop Current, Gustav now looks to be a run-of-the-mill, low-end Cat. 3 event, at worst. Top winds right now are 115 mph, which are of course nothing to sneeze at — but this is just a regular old major hurricane, not a world-historical event. It may even weaken to Cat. 2 before coming ashore. If journalists continue to act like Gustav is going to be the end of the world, it will only feed public cynicism about hurricane warnings once it comes ashore and “disappoints.”