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In the Eye on the Storm, Forecasters Hold the Lamp High

Times Staff Writer

Outside the fortress-like building on the campus of Florida International University a light rain fell. Nearby a high school football game was underway. But amid signs of normalcy, a red lamp glowed.

For the third day, the brass lamp at the entrance signaled the traditional mariners’ storm alert -- its red light a small, silent warning of hurricane danger.

It was Thursday evening at the National Hurricane Center, and Rita was spinning like a slow-motion bullet headed for the heart of the Gulf Coast.

The red lamp’s warning already had prompted hundreds of thousands of fearful residents in distant Texas and Louisiana to scramble into cars and buses in a mass evacuation that snarled traffic and tested tempers.

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And as the menacing swirl of Hurricane Rita’s satellite images flashed across television screens, the entire nation seemed riveted to weather reports.

Those reports originated here.

Inside the hurricane center, protected by the 10-inch thick concrete walls, it was business as usual -- the mood cool and professional -- amid telltale signs of a siege.

On the U-shaped table of Max Mayfield, the center’s director, his takeout dinner of chicken and rice sat mostly uneaten. The soft-spoken, bespectacled meteorologist was facing another camera, performing yet another live, four-minute television interview.

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“Well, Paula, the one really important thing here is that not only is it a powerful hurricane like Katrina, but also a very large hurricane,” Mayfield said into the unblinking camera lens in front of him. He paused. Through an earpiece, he listened to another question from CNN anchor Paula Zahn, then looked into the camera lens again and said:

“I don’t want anybody to think that anyone can say exactly where this hurricane is going to land.”

The public face and voice of the hurricane center was calm but firm. Rita is a dangerous storm. Everyone along the Gulf Coast should take it seriously.

“It’s lost a little bit of strength, Ted, but it’s still a very dangerous Category 4 hurricane,” Mayfield said evenly to Ted Koppel and the audience of ABC’s “Nightline.”

Between TV shots, Mayfield refreshed his knowledge of Gulf Coast geography by consulting a road atlas. With patience and a smile, he replied to identical questions again and again.

“This is important. It’s all about getting the word out,” Mayfield said. The Oklahoma native has a knack for folksy imagery that makes complex weather phenomena understandable.

After quitting the balmy ocean waters for dry land, he said in one TV appearance, a hurricane is like “water boiling on a stove. You turn off the heat, the water stops boiling.”

Behind Mayfield, a TV screen displays and replays a computer-enhanced view of the hurricane’s water vapor content, turning Rita’s ominous core to a warm tomato-red.

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Nearby a blue and buff map shows all the weather threats that hurricane forecasters are tracking in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific: four tropical storms, each a potentially troublesome sibling of Rita.

Mayfield steps away from the cameras. Besides concern for the Gulf Coast, he’s concerned about his staff. “These guys haven’t had a break here,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had a day without advisories since the end of June.”

The vagaries of hurricanes never cease to surprise him, he said, especially the unpleasant novelty this year that “there seems to be a rule somewhere that they all have to hit land.”

Around Mayfield, the business of predicting what the storm would do next swirls in gentle but constant motion.

A call comes in from a television station in New Zealand.

“They’re safe,” Mayfield jokes.

A wobble has been observed in Rita’s movement. A Houston TV station wants to know what that might signify.

Don’t read too much into that, Mayfield responds.

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An unending torrent of data streams in from weather satellites, hurricane chase planes, weather buoys and ships.

One computer monitor glows with the green cross of a plane flying into Rita’s eye. Wind speeds are measured and relayed to Maryland, where computer-aided modeling helps estimate Rita’s course and intensity.

Back at the hurricane center, forecasters interpret the data. Rick Knabb, the night shift forecaster in a long-sleeved shirt and tie, rolled his chair up to a keyboard and punched out the official 10 p.m. (CDT) report in capital letters:

“EXTREMELY DANGEROUS CATEGORY FOUR HURRICANE RITA CONTINUES WEST-NORTHWESTWARD TOWARD THE SOUTHWESTERN LOUISIANA AND UPPER TEXAS COASTS.... “

Near midnight, Mayfield finishes his last interview. It’s time to read the 200 e-mails received since he last checked.

Trish Wallace, a meteorologist in the center’s Tropical Analysis and Forecast branch, takes a break from writing a bulletin on surface air conditions over the Atlantic Ocean. She makes a fresh pot of coffee in the center’s ready room -- but there are few snacks to go with it.

“In the past two weeks,” she says, “we’ve been too busy to reload the vending machines.”

Through the night, hurricane-hunter aircraft fly in and out of Rita’s eye. Wind speeds and directions, barometric pressure fluctuations, water temperatures and vapor content are recorded and processed to hurricane center computers.

Morning reports on Friday are encouraging.

Mayfield’s deputy, Edward Rappaport, starts the morning round of television appearances at 6:45. Informed of rising barometric pressure and a widening eye of the storm, he sees a drop in Rita’s force.

“We think the trend will continue, and the winds will come down before landfall,” Rappaport says. By the time it touches land, he predicts, Rita will be “probably a Category 3" with sustained winds of 111 to 130 mph.

That still constitutes a major hurricane of terrific destructive potential, Rappaport cautions.

“Katrina,” he points out, “was mainly a Category 3.”

Shortly before noon, boxes of pizza arrive. It goes fast. But attention remains on Rita. On Friday, the brass lamp is still red.


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