August 29, 2005 - Hurricane Katrina Gulfport, Mississippi
Chase Account by: Scott Blair Written early September 2005
These aerial photos mark my location in Gulfport, MS during the landfall of Katrina. The first image serves as a reference to mark my location relative to Gulfport and the ocean. The latter two compare a before and after shot zoomed into my location. I stayed in the drive-thru of a well-constructed bank building during the intense duration of the storm. I was positioned approximately 3000 feet (3/5 mile) from the Gulf of Mexico and approximately 1400 feet (1/4 mile) from where the surge ceased.
I departed Saturday afternoon (August 27) heading towards Slidell, LA. Traveling down I-59, contraflow was put into order by evening as hurricane warnings were posted for the coast. Thirty miles of I-59 were turned all northbound as traffic streamed out of the greater New Orleans and Slidell areas. I briefly slept the night in Mandeville, LA.
From early morning into early Sunday afternoon (August 28), Hurricane Katrina intensified into a potentially catastrophic hurricane. Winds remained near 175mph with a very low pressure of 902mb. I downloaded these images in Slidell as I was making my analysis and forecast. The satellite presentation was clearly breathtaking and terrifying. The forecast models were becoming more unanimous and consistent in sending Katrina near the LA/MS coastline border. The SHIPS model intensity forecast was ominous keeping sustained winds in the 170-180mph range just before landfall.
(Left Image) I scouted areas of potential safe zones to stay during the duration of the storm. One area I ventured through was Bay St Louis, MS. The first photo shows an eerie image of downtown Bay St Louis directly on the coast before the storm. This exact location sustained a 28 foot storm surge within 16 hours after this photo was taken.
(Middle Image) Chaos developed along Highway 90 near the LA/MS border during early afternoon as evacuees faced bridge problems. The eastbound bridge became inoperative due to an electronic failure. Shortly after, the westbound bridge was blocked due to a car fire. This effectively trapped several thousand already panicked evacuees for a long hour. This location was the exact spot the center of the hurricane made landfall only 18 hours later.
(Right Image) By early evening, the outer rainbands of Katrina came ashore bringing the first heavy rains, strong winds, and lightning. Around 7pm, the final group of evacuees slowly moved north on I-10 out of Slidell. After sunset, most of the roads became empty as Katrina grew closer to the coastline. An undescribable unsettled feeling arose with the stillness and anticipation within 12 hours of landfall.
(Left Image) I stayed awake in Slidell during the early morning hours of Monday, August 29th. The hurricane's northern periphery of the central dense overcast (CDO) and heavy squalls arrived in Slidell by 3am. Three brilliant power flashes during a one hour duration resulted in total darkness throughout the region. My data feed ended during this time and an unsettled blackness filled the air.
(Right Image) By twilight, wind gusts drastically increased to near 70mph resulting in minor damage to surrounding areas. Through limited information, it appeared Katrina would make landfall a few miles east of Slidell near the LA/MS border. Desiring to be in the right quadrant of the eye where the strongest winds would be located, I elected to shift east to the Mississippi coastal regions.
I carefully moved into Mississippi by 7:30am and was greeted by significant wind gusts easily up to 90mph. Luckily the majority of wind at the time was parallel to eastbound travel. Surprisingly, storm surge was already approaching I-10 near the Bay St Louis and Waveland exit ramp. This was three miles from the coast and still two hours before landfall. This region recorded the highest storm surge associated with Katrina with a maximum surge height of 32 feet. Wind gusts continued to increase as numerous billboards gave way to the unmatched force.
The most favorable location based on elevation and position relative to the storm to observe Katrina was narrowed down to downtown Gulfport, MS. Power poles began snapping and fully collapsing as I exited off I-10 and shifted south on Highway 49. Reaching the northern portion of Gulfport shortly after 8am, significant damage was ongoing across the city. Airborne debris was widespread and numerous large signs and traffic lights were destroyed. Channeled east winds gusted over 100 mph violently shaking the car when perpendicular to the wind. The roar of the hurricane became quite evident and lasted for the next several hours.
As I entered the heart of downtown Gulfport within one-half mile from the ocean, devastating destruction began to occur. More power poles collapsed, sending power lines strewed about the area. Incredible surf wildly swirled off the sides and roofs of buildings. The air was filled with debris and alarm sirens from businesses. Large structures failed and crashed down, sending more debris into the sky. Note the piece of wood in the van windshield. Wind gusts over 100 mph were common in the stronger squalls. As I reached 16th Street, a building partially collapsed sending debris and rocks into my car. The debris immediately shattered three side windows and I quickly took refuge. I selected a concrete-reinforced bank building with a sturdy overhang near 18th Street as my final position for the remainder of the landfall.
The sequence of photos above depicts the before and after of Pete's Electric Service Auto Repair business in downtown Gulfport. The building was located north across from my position at Whitney Bank. The structure first lost its large garage doors before 9am. As the eyewall arrived around 10:30am, the southern portion of the building became detached from the foundation. The structure ferociously bounced up and down before intense wind gusts lifted off the entire structure intact and disintegrated the remains around neighboring objects. As the eastern eyewall moved ashore into Gulfport, isolated wind gusts likely peaked around 130mph in funneled regions. The scene was indescribable and difficult to portray into words. Perhaps it can be best described as viewing a hundred mile per hour waterfall turned horizontally, while mixing a deep roar with constant high-pitched and crashing sounds. Literally the visibility was reduced to zero with an entire horizon violently moving rapidly. The most severe damage in Gulfport occurred during a two-hour period from 9:30-11:30am.
Flying debris was a significant hazard in downtown Gulfport. Sheet metal, boards, rocks, and even trash cans floated throughout the air with ease creating further damage with any impact. Once the center moved through Gulfport, the winds slowly subsided enough to allow for mobility. A further understanding to the extent of damage was made obvious while traversing through Highway 49 and Past Road. Virtually every home and business sustained damage and the roads were covered in a mixture of power lines, power poles, vegetative debris, and structural debris. It took several hours to meander out of Gulfport and even more hours to end the day in Mobile, AL by midnight.
This was likely the most intense and destructive hurricane in my lifetime. Millions of residents throughout portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were directly devastated by this killer storm. My heartfelt condolences are extended to all those who were affected by Katrina. Observing the destruction firsthand, I understand the nightmare these residents survived through and I encourage everyone to contribute aid in whatever means possible. A tremendous thank you is extended to the friends and family that assisted in my safe return and showed a passionate concern to my well-being. An extended thank you is given to Jeff Piotrowski and Steve Sembritzky for the very helpful camaraderie and quick-thinking throughout Katrina. I'm blessed to know such amazing people. Katrina will potentially go down as the hurricane intercept of my lifetime and I'm humbled to have witnessed a part of monumental history.
Some final miscellaneous observations worth noting...
1) The National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida provided several days of excellent forecasting for the public. In addition, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Slidell, Louisiana forecasted the event and warned of the potential disastrous scenario allowing ample lead time for residents to evacuate. The services these individuals provided and the accuracy of the information should be well appreciated by the millions of people who, perhaps unknowningly, used this information to save their lives. The National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, in partnership with media outlets, are a major reason so many people survived. Thank you for your services.
2) It is important to recall that New Orleans was not the only location affected by this storm. In comparsion to other locations, it's remarkable how relativley lucky the Big Easy came out. Communties such as Venice, Grand Isle, Boothville, Buras, Waveland, and Bay Saint Louis were completely devestated. Leeves breached in numerous locations, allowing an incrediable rushing of water into the area. In addition, wind gusts were significantly stronger in these regions, destroying water towers, well-built structures, and thousands of homes. In some cases in deep south Louisiana, only water remains with no sign of land where homes once stood.