By María Arce
September 20, 2017. 6.15 am. This is the official time and date on which Category 4 hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. It brought sustained winds of 155 mph and its pressure was 917 millibars.
August 29, 2005. 6:10 am local. That is the official time and date when Hurricane Katrina, Category 3, made landfall in Louisiana. It brought sustained winds of 125 mph and its pressure was 918 millibars.
The difference between these figures, based on reports from the National Hurricane Center, is minimal in numbers, but higher at symbolic and real level. Katrina is considered the most destructive hurricane in the history of US storms with damage for $108 billion and 1,200 citizens dead.
However, technically, María was more powerful according to the information reported by the National Hurricane Center. Not only did it blow, at landfall, with 30 miles per hour more than Katrina, but its barometric pressure was 1 millibar lower than Katrina´s (917 vs 918). The lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.
Anthony Reynés is a meteorologist and has been issuing weather reports and bulletins for Puerto Rico since September 20th, when María hit the island.
"Changes in (barometric) pressure do not necessarily imply that one hurricane is more powerful than the other, because sometimes these pressure fluctuations in the eye of the hurricane take time to be reflected in the evolution of the speed of winds," he told ElNuevoDía. com.
But, in the case of Maria vs. Katrina, that fluctuation was reflected in sustained winds. Katrina´s winds blew at 125 miles per hour, classifying it as a category 3 hurricane, while Maria´s were at 155 miles per hour, classifying as category 4. But "it was almost a category 5," Reynés said.
Category 4 includes cyclones with winds between 130 and 156 miles per hour. Maria was on the edge between one category and another.
"The impact of major hurricanes is measured in disaster or catastrophe. What we see right now in Puerto Rico is a catastrophe," said the meteorologist who was born in Juncos and made the first 13 years of his career at the National Weather Service office in San Juan.
"Although a category 3 (like Katrina) is very destructive, the power of destruction of a hurricane 4 (like Maria) or 5 is exponential," he explained.
"For example, a category 5 does not cause five times more damage than a category 1. That linear analysis is incorrect. A category 5 hurricane causes 500 times more damage than a category 1, " said Reynés who is keeping an eye on Puerto Rico every minute. Not only because of his work but because his family is here. "I´ve talked to them and I know they survived the hurricane," he told ElNuevoDia.com.
Meanwhile, he devotes his hours to communicate with his colleagues in San Juan. "We took operations in San Juan on Wednesday (Sept, 20th) because we lost contact with the measurement systems. We have many challenges, rain gauges and anemometers have been disconnected. It is not that they have been destroyed, obviously some must have suffered damage, but the problem is that we lost communication," he confirmed.
When asked about how he compensates this lack of information, he pointed out that there are some instruments which are functioning, in water bodies, for example. And that the "GOES" satellites - which were launched last year - are collaborating to fill in the black holes of information.
"GOES-R and the GOES-16 are doing a fantastic job in covering the lack of radar," Reynés said.
GOES 16 has not been declared officially operational yet, however, this satellite is making a great debut when reporting "fabulous" hurricane images. It is capable of scanning a specific area of severe weather every 30 seconds, a capability that other satellites of the GOES group don´t have. This speed of rapid exploration allowed meteorologists to analyze cloud patterns and follow María in real time.
On the other hand, Reynés said that a fundamental fact is that the San Juan team can still launch, twice a day, a weather balloon that raises instruments to measure pressure, temperature and humidity, among other factors. "And although they cannot transmit the information they collect, they send it through an internal communication system, and we distribute it for them."
Thanks to this combined effort, Puerto Ricans received weather alerts after Maria. And beyond the intensity that this hurricane has had, what remains ahead for Puerto Rico is to quantify the damage and the cost of reconstruction. This will determine whether or not Katrina will still be at the top of the list of the most destructive hurricanes. At power level, Maria was the worst of the two hurricanes.
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