Experts

From Forecast to Disaster: A Timeline at the National Hurricane Center

MIAMI — The turning point came early Thursday morning. Bleary-eyed experts at the National Hurricane Center saw that Harvey, a tropical storm that they had been tracking for a week as it wandered westward through the Caribbean, was starting to build power quickly, as if gunning for hurricane status.

Within 48 hours, it would become the strongest hurricane to hit the United States in more than a decade, smashing into the Texas coast, inundating the nation’s fourth-largest city and prompting some to question whether the public could have been warned earlier about the scale of the threat.

Thursday, 4 a.m.

. . . Harvey forecast to strengthen in the Gulf of Mexico . . .

“That was the day when we realized that it was going to be much worse,” said Michael Brennan, the branch chief of the hurricane specialist unit at the center. “We had aircraft data and saw the storm was beginning to rapidly intensify.”

That was when the center, which is staffed around the clock, also went into overdrive. Getting information out about the storm was crucial, so six people at the center started helping to reach out to reporters, coordinate with media outlets and blitz social media.

Mr. Brennan said the team recognized relatively early on that Harvey had the potential to slow down and stall over the Texas coast, where it could dump huge amounts of rain. By noon on Thursday, a hurricane-hunter plane had obtained wind data confirming that Harvey had strengthened to a Category 1 hurricane, and the airplane team could see that Harvey was not going to stop there.

The hurricane liaison team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which operates at the center, also kicked into higher gear at that point. The team helps turn what the meteorologists are deciphering into action plans for emergency teams on the ground.

Eight-hour work shifts were stretched to ten, and before long pizza started flowing into the building, which is on the campus of Florida International University. Someone sent in a basket of fruit to counteract the ubiquitous boxes of doughnuts. Coffee cups piled up.

“The food appears, and it’s gone really fast,” Mr. Brennan said. “You have people working all the time, not able to go out or sit down and eat.”

Photo

Vi Tran shielded her daughters Olivia, left, and Eva from the rain after being evacuated from the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston.

Credit
Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

He was not complaining. Twenty-five years ago, when the center was in Coral Gables, Fla., the staff had to track Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, as it bore down almost directly at them, and fret about the safety of their families, houses and cars all the while.

Thursday, 4 p.m.

. . . Life-threatening and devastating flooding expected . . .

As Thursday wore on, the center extended its hurricane and storm-surge warnings several times and warned that the storm packed plenty of rain and was likely to stall once it made landfall. At 1 p.m. Central time, the headline on its Harvey bulletin said preparations along the Texas coast “should be rushed to completion today.”

The 4 p.m. headline warned of “life-threatening and devastating flooding.” By midnight, its winds had strengthened to Category 2 and the total rain forecast had risen to the range of 15 to 25 inches, with isolated areas seeing 35 inches.

Harvey quickly grew even bolder on Friday as it drew close to the coast, and the center was pumping out updates by the hour. At 2 p.m. it was upgraded to Category 3, with sustained winds nearing 120 miles an hour and a storm surge already developing near Corpus Christi and Port Aransas.

Warnings to hurry preparations for the storm were no longer featured in the center’s bulletins; the time for that had passed.

Friday, 6 p.m.

. . . Sustained hurricane-force winds spreading onto the middle Texas coast . . .

At 6 p.m., Harvey hit Category 4, its peak strength, and landfall was imminent. Now the center’s meteorologists were thinking about 40 inches of rain or more in some areas, but in most respects Harvey was sticking to the forecast script. By 10 p.m. the eye of the storm had crossed the coastline.

Much has changed through the years for hurricane experts, as profuse data and better technology for gathering and using it have expanded their capabilities.

Hurricane Harvey was the first for which the center issued a storm surge map, a new feature under development for years.

Hurricanes are categorized by the strength of their winds, but it is their storm surges that often do the most damage in coastal areas, and can be even more deadly than the winds, Mr. Brennan said. The center issued separate storm surge warnings and included them in each of its bulletins about Harvey, warning of catastrophic flooding.

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