Explainer: Ida and Katrina similar but tiny differences are key

Category 4 Hurricane Ida is on track for a potentially devastating landfall on the Louisiana coast on Sunday.

Traffic moves bumper to bumper as residents arrive in Texas from the Louisiana border ahead of Hurricane Ida [Adrees Latif/Reuters]

Hurricane Ida is looking eerily like a dangerous sequel to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the costliest storm in American history. But there are a few still-to-come twists that could make Ida nastier in some ways, but not quite as horrific in others.

Ida is forecast to make landfall on the same calendar date, August 29, as Katrina did 16 years ago, striking the same general part of Louisiana with about the same wind speed, after rapidly strengthening by going over a similar patch of deep warm water that supercharges hurricanes.

What could be different is crucial though: direction and size.

“This has the potential to be more of a natural disaster whereas the big issue in Katrina was more of a man-made one” because of levee failures, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. Levee failures pushed Katrina’s death toll to 1,833 and its overall damage to about $176bn and experts do not expect Ida to come near those totals.

Different direction

Ida is coming to the same general place from a slightly different direction. Several hurricane experts fear that difference in angle may put New Orleans more in the dangerous storm quadrant – the right front part of a hurricane – than it was in Katrina, when the city was more devastated by levee failure than storm surge. Katrina’s northeast quadrant pushed 8.5-metre (28-foot) storm surges in Mississippi, not New Orleans.

Ida’s “angle is potentially even worse”, McNoldy said. Because it is smaller “it’s not going to as easily create a huge storm surge … but the angle that this is coming in, I think is more conducive to pushing water into the lake [Pontchartrain]”.

That northwestern path of Ida not only puts New Orleans more in the bullseye than it did in Katrina, but it also more targets Baton Rouge and crucial industrial areas, said meteorologist Jeff Masters, who flew hurricane missions for the government and founded Weather Underground. He said Ida is forecast to move through “the just absolute worst place for a hurricane”.

“It is forecast to track over the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which is one of the key infrastructure regions of the US, critical to the economy, there’s hundreds of major industry sites there, I mean petrochemical sites, three of the 15 largest ports in America, a nuclear power plant,” Masters said. “You’re probably going to shut down the Mississippi River for barge traffic for multiple weeks.”

“It’s not just the coastal impact. It’s not just New Orleans,” said meteorologist Steve Bowen, head of global catastrophe insight at the risk and consulting firm Aon. “We’re certainly looking at potential losses well into the billions.”

Size matters

The difference in size is not just physically huge, but it matters for damage. Storms that are bigger in width have larger storm surge because of the broader push of the water.

Ida “is not going to generate the huge storm surge like Katrina did, it’ll have more focused storm surge like [1969’s Hurricane] Camille”, Masters said.

But larger storms are often weaker, Bowen said. There is a trade-off of intense damage in a smaller area versus less damage, but still bad, in a wider area. Bowen and Princeton University’s Gabriel Vecchi said they do not know which scenario would be worse in this case.

Rapid intensification

Ida is about to hit an eddy of what is called the Loop Current. The Loop Current is this deep patch of incredibly warm water. It takes warm water off the Yucatan Peninsula, does a loop in the Gulf of Mexico, and spins up the eastern edge of Florida into the Gulf Stream. Water above 26 degrees Celsius (79F) is hurricane fuel.

Normally when a storm intensifies or stalls it takes up all of the region’s warm water and then hits colder water that starts to weaken the storm or at least keeps it from further strengthening. But these warm water spots keep fuelling a storm.

Katrina powered up this way and Ida is forecast to do the same. The eddy that Ida is going to pass over has necessary warm water going more than 150 metres (500 feet) deep, “just a hot tub”, McNoldy said. That means lots of rapid intensification.

“Running over these Loop Current [eddys] is a very big deal. It’s really dangerous,” said climate and hurricane scientist Kossin of The Climate Service. “It could be explosive.”

In the past 40 years, more hurricanes are rapidly intensifying more often and climate change seems to be at least partly to be blame, Kossin and Vecchi said. Hurricane Grace already rapidly intensified this year and last year Hanna, Laura, Sally, Teddy, Gamma and Delta all rapidly intensified.

“It has a human fingerprint on it,” said Kossin, who with Vecchi was part of a 2019 study on recent rapid intensifications.

New eyewall

After a hurricane rapidly intensifies it becomes so strong and its eye so small that it often cannot quite keep going that way, so it forms an outer eyewall and the inside eyewall collapses, Kossin said. That is called eyewall replacement.

When a new eyewall forms, often a storm becomes larger but a bit weaker, Kossin said. So the key for Ida is when and if that happens. It happened for Katrina, which steadily weakened in the 12 hours before it made landfall.

However, many of the other forces such as crosswinds that made Katrina weaken at the last minute are not there for Ida, McNoldy said.

Source: AP