Tracing a Hurricane at the National Hurricane Center

The National Hurricane Center in Miami is the official source for information on how powerful a hurricane is, where it's heading, and when it will hit. Forecasters there were hard at work in the final hours before Rita struck the Gulf Coast Saturday mornings.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

When a hurricane heads toward the US coastline, all eyes turn to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It's the official source for information on how powerful a hurricane is, where it's heading and when it will hit. Emergency planners depend on the center to decide where to order an evacuation. If the forecasters there get it wrong, people may die. NPR's Jon Hamilton has been reporting from the center for the past few days. He filed this report on the events there in the final hours before Rita struck the Gulf Coast this morning.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

The Hurricane Center works in six-hour cycles. The crucial cycle for Hurricane Rita begins at 5 PM Eastern time on Friday. Ed Rappaport is the center's deputy director. By that time, he's already been at the center for nearly 12 hours.

Mr. ED RAPPAPORT (Deputy Director, National Hurricane Center): We on overtime yet? (Laughs)

HAMILTON: As Rita gets closer to land, one of Rappaport's jobs is to make hourly statements to the media.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: Good afternoon. This is the 5 PM Eastern time update on Hurricane Rita, also corresponds to 4 PM Central time. Rita remains a very dangerous hurricane, still Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, maximum winds remain at 125 miles per hour.

HAMILTON: Each forecasting cycle begins with data. These days, a lot of it comes from small radio transmitters dropped by airplanes into the hurricane itself. They report their speed and direction as they fall. Tiny changes in these readings can signal that a storm is changing its path or intensity. So far, Rita has been heading straight for the Texas-Louisiana border. But sometime after 6 PM, Rappaport tells a reporter he's worried that could change and expose major cities to a storm surge of 15 feet or more.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: The problem we have, of course, is that the track will shift a little bit left or right. If it goes to the left by 50 miles, we would then push that storm surge into the Galveston-Galveston Bay-Houston area.

HAMILTON: By 7 PM, Rappaport has turned over media briefings to Max Mayfield, the Hurricane Center's director. Mayfield warns people to stay clear of Rita's path, but he also lets them know that things won't be as bad as they've been in New Orleans.

Mr. MAX MAYFIELD (Director, National Hurricane Center): If there's any good news here, it's not as strong as Katrina, it's not as large as Katrina and it's certainly not hitting a populated area like Katrina did.

HAMILTON: It's approaching 9 PM at the Hurricane Center. Max Mayfield divides his time between meteorology and public relations. He knows his words may decide whether someone stays in their house or heads for higher ground.

Mr. MAYFIELD: Did you hear anything on the levees? Yeah. Sure.

Unidentified Man #1: Max, you have a break until 9:00 tomorrow.

Mr. MAYFIELD: Oh, you're so kind.

Unidentified Man #1: But the Houston station, I told them to call us...

Mr. MAYFIELD: Anytime, I'll talk to Houston. Anytime they want to talk, I'll...

HAMILTON: It's now after 10 PM, less than an hour before Mayfield will broadcast the Hurricane Center's last major advisory before Rita strikes land. Mayfield consults with his colleagues.

Unidentified Man #2: That's what I'm saying.

Mr. MAYFIELD: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: It's going to go way over.

Mr. MAYFIELD: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: That's not going to stop it.

Mr. MAYFIELD: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: I can guarantee you, it's ...(unintelligible).

Mr. MAYFIELD: That looks just like this, right?

Unidentified Man #2: That's it.

Mr. MAYFIELD: Just a few feet high, yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: ...(Unintelligible) tell you it's not that high.

Mr. MAYFIELD: So Port Arthur is...

HAMILTON: Mayfield has gathered all the information he can. He sits down at a desk surrounded by reporters. Behind him is a huge video screen showing satellite images of Rita approaching the coast. Mayfield turns to the television camera.

Mr. MAYFIELD: Good evening. This is 11 PM Eastern Daylight Time and the 10 PM Central Daylight Time update on dangerous Hurricane Rita. The eye of the hurricane was located about 55 miles southeast of Sabine Pass near the Texas-Louisiana border. It's moving toward the northwest at 12 miles per hour, which should get the eye onto the coast in about four hours or so.

HAMILTON: Mayfield is pretty close. The storm arrives four and a half hours later, almost exactly where the forecasters said it would. Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Miami.

ELLIOTT: The people of coastal Texas and Louisiana have a long history with deadly storms. The hurricane that struck Galveston in 1900 caused the greatest loss of life of any weather disaster in the nation. Storm tides inundated the whole of Galveston Island and nearby shorelines. More than 6,000 people died and most of the buildings in that port city were destroyed. Since then, Galveston has been protected by a 10-mile-long seawall. Fortunately, that seawall wasn't really tested by Hurricane Rita, which spared the city the brunt of its force.

In June of 1957, Hurricane Audrey made landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border as a Category 4 hurricane. Again, the main impact was from the storm surges that rolled 25 miles inland over portions of low-lying southwestern Louisiana; 390 people were killed by Hurricane Audrey in 1957.

This is NPR News.

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