Gustav Flyover Recalls Katrina

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Hurricane scientists following Gustav from the air watched the hurricane rapidly gather strength. Most of them had tracked Katrina, and as they analyzed the data coming in Saturday, they were acutely aware of the implications for people on the ground.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

NPR's Jon Hamilton is tracking the storm at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Jon, how are the forecasters there comparing Gustav with Katrina?

JON HAMILTON: Well, of course there are some obvious comparisons. They're both major storms, they're both in the Gulf of Mexico, and they're both heading for New Orleans, but there's major differences, too.

So far, Gustav has been less powerful than Katrina was and probably a bit more predictable. You may recall that Katrina seemed to be headed right for New Orleans but swerved a little bit at the last moment.

LYDEN: So what really counts is what happens between now and landfall.

HAMILTON: Oh of course. The storms are always unpredictable. Things can change quite a bit in the course of 24 hours. It's worth noting that scientists are a lot better than they used to be at predicting storms, though, and they've been right on so far with this one.

LYDEN: Jon, when we spoke to you yesterday, you were in a plane somewhere over Cuba in the eye of the storm. What could you see from the plane?

HAMILTON: Well, you could clearly see the eye wall, which you can't always see with storms. This one was quite vivid, an enormous, round bowl-type shape, and we flew in and out of the storm a number of times, and you would go from absolutely crystal-clear weather to suddenly being in clouds and just violent turbulence. Let me tell you, it was quite a ride.

(Soundbite of airplane)

HAMILTON: Flying into a big storm like Gustav gives you a whole new appreciation for seat belts.

Unidentified Man #1: You can feel that.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, indeed.

Unidentified Man #1: We dropped pretty good. Now you can see the eye wall. It was just attenuation. (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: Closed, still pretty closed and circular, isn't it?

HAMILTON: We're flying in the latest version of a C-130 Hercules. We've been zigzagging across Gustav at 10,000 feet. The C-130 was designed for things like delivering armored vehicles to places without a paved runway, so a 10-hour flight through a hurricane is no big deal, and the cargo hold of this plane is big enough to play badminton, plenty of room for the people and equipment you need to dissect a moving storm.

Troy Bickam(ph), a technical sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, has just launched a cylinder the size of a fat model rocket through a tube in the plane's belly. The drop sound will radio back information about pressure and wind speed as it falls to the water. That data goes straight to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center.

Another instrument on this flight detects microwave energy generated by wave action to give a constant readout of the wind speeds at the ocean's surface.

Bickam says he's one of the newest members of this hurricane-hunting team.

Sergeant TROY BICKAM (Air Force Reserve): Well actually, this is my first Category Three hurricane. So this is my very first one. So it's a pretty big storm for me.

HAMILTON: Bickam is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He joined the hurricane hunters after seeing what Katrina did to New Orleans. Like just about all of the hurricane hunters, Bickam has a personal connection to Katrina. That's no coincidence. The squadron's home is Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. The base took a direct hit. Some people lost their homes, but the hunters never missed a flight.

Lieutenant Colonel Troy Anderson(ph) was in his apartment in Biloxi when Katrina arrived.

Lieutenant Colonel TROY ANDERSON: I was really concerned because I saw the branches and tar paper flying around, and I was really worried about people who had houses.

HAMILTON: But he sums up the experience of riding out a hurricane on the ground with just two words: noisy and boring. Up here, Anderson says, it's another story.

Lt. Col. ANDERSON: In pilot training, there was - one of the instructors had some pictures taken from the eyes of typhoons, and I saw those pictures, and I thought that looks like a lot of fun. So I requested this assignment and was lucky enough to get it.

HAMILTON: The crew balances a fascination with storms like Gustav with first-hand knowledge about what they can do. Joseph Roach(ph) has a civilian job flying for UPS, but at the moment, he's in the pilot seat, looking down at the frothy mist created by hurricane winds sheering the tops off open-ocean swells.

Mr. JOSEPH ROACH (Pilot): I would imagine being down there on the surface, (unintelligible) feel pretty rough up here, I know it's going to be a lot worse down on the ground or on the water.

HAMILTON: Roach was at work, flying with the hurricane hunters, when Katrina struck his house in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He since moved to Kentucky, but he stayed with the squadron because they make a difference. Flights like this one make hurricane forecasting about 30-percent more accurate.

One way they do this is by providing precise measurements of the storm's dimensions. Roach says on this score, at least, Gustav hasn't yet matched Katrina.

Mr. ROACH: Katrina was such a big storm. The hurricane-force winds were way out past 100, 105 miles from the center. This storm, the hurricane-force winds are a little more confined, probably inside 50 miles from the center.

HAMILTON: Gustav could still grow as it crosses the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. If it does, the hurricane hunters will probably be the first to know. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Hurricane Gustav has already dampened plans for the first day of the GOP convention tomorrow. That's next. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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