Western’s hurricane researcher calls Katrina “worst” he’s ever seen

CULLOWHEE – Nationally known hurricane impact researcher Rob Young, associate professor of geology at Western Carolina University, says the devastation wrought across the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina is the worst he has encountered in nearly 20 years of post-storm coastal reconnaissance.

Damage on Dauphin Island, Alabama. (Photos courtesy of Duke University Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.)

Damage on Dauphin Island, Alabama.
(Photos courtesy of Duke University Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.)

Young and his colleague Andrew S. Coburn, associate director of the Duke University Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, chartered a small airplane and flew over the shattered Gulf Coast communities, from Pensacola, Fla., to Grand Island, La., on Friday, Sept. 3. What they saw from the air stunned them.

“I have been on the scene of every major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since Hurricane Hugo in 1989,” Young said. “The damage caused by Hurricane Katrina is by far the most damage I have ever seen.”

While much of the nation’s attention is riveted on the crisis in the city of New Orleans, Young’s research is directed at Katrina’s effect on the coastal communities of Alabama and Mississippi. The over-flight was part of his ongoing research studying such factors as storm surge, storm overwash, and patterns of damage and debris to help determine why some sections of coastline fare better than others during major storms.

Young has long advocated a new scale that would forecast with greater detail what happens when storms move on shore. While the Saffir-Simpson scale – which ranks hurricanes as category one to five depending upon barometric pressure, wind speed and storm surge – describes the absolute strength of a hurricane in the open ocean, it does a poor job of predicting the effect of a hurricane on the shore during landfall, he said. Young believes such factors as coastal geomorphology, storm history and other characteristics also play a major role in how destructive a particular storm may be.

From the air, Rob Young surveys the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina

From the air, Rob Young surveys the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina

“When Katrina dropped from a category five storm to a category four, many people thought they had dodged a bullet,” Young said. “But we saw neighborhoods decimated and debris deposited by the storm surge much further inland in Mississippi and Alabama than many people expected.”

Through their work studying Katrina and other storms, Young and his colleagues hope to convince government officials and policy-makers to re-examine notions of appropriate places on the coastline to build – and, in the case of the Gulf Coast – rebuild. The scientists are evaluating existing maps used by state and federal agencies to determine which sections of coastline are at greatest risk during hurricane impact, and will offer recommendations on how planners and emergency managers should modify those maps.

Over the years, Young has conducted research on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the insurance industry through its Public Entity Risk Institute.

“We’re trying to see how the geology of the coastline plays a role in determining where the most property damage will be,” he said. “We’re hoping to learn enough and come up with enough cold, hard facts to discourage people from building these expensive homes on the coast, especially on the vulnerable portions of barrier islands.”

Young said Dauphin Island, Ala., was hammered by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed a main road and flattened houses. “Dauphin Island is the prime example of a shoreline that never should have been developed,” he said.

Young also maintains the Coastal Hazards Information Clearinghouse, a Web-based resource for information about coastal hazards and detailed hazard maps of most U.S. shorelines.