MIAMI, Dec. 21, 2005 -- It's been called the storm of the century and a monster. Hurricane Katrina will almost certainly hold the record for the biggest and costliest natural disaster in the country's history, and its real cost and real toll won't be known for years.
But what is known now is that Hurricane Katrina was not the lion people thought it was, despite the staggering devastation it inflicted across four states. A report released this week by the National Hurricane Center said that when Katrina hit land early on the morning of Aug. 29, it was a Category 3 hurricane.
After examining devices that were dropped into Katrina from hurricane-hunter aircraft and after reviewing readings from weather stations and weather buoys, the center has concluded that Katrina's maximum winds at landfall were 127 mph, not 140 mph, as originally estimated. That means that on the record books Katrina drops from a Category 4 to a Category 3.
Even more sobering, the study confirmed that Katrina was a Category 1 when it hit New Orleans. The city that sits below the sea, protected by its precarious levees, was on the weaker, west side of Katrina. The report said maximum sustained winds were 95 mph, with occasional gusts a little higher.
"While the intensity of Katrina was Category 3 as the center of the eye made its closest approach to the east of downtown New Orleans, the strongest winds ... were likely present only over water to the east of the eye," according to the report.
That means New Orleans' storm fortifications were much weaker than residents had been led to believe.
"This news further highlights the need for a full federal commitment to build the highest level of protection through levees and coastal restoration for New Orleans, south Louisiana and the Gulf Coast," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told New Orleans' Times-Picayune.
The news also highlighted the need for people to reassess their response to oncoming hurricanes. The notion that a Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane is a mere lamb of a storm has been disproved over and over in the past two years.
Before Katrina tore through the Gulf states, it hit Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Katrina's damage in Florida was overshadowed by the devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi, but even in Miami it left huge scars. Brickell Avenue, at the center of downtown, is still a maze of boarded-up high rises in which thousands of windows were shattered.
People were terrified and terrorized when Katrina hit. Ask them how strong Katrina was when it came through Miami and they'll tell you with confidence.
"I know it was a Category 3," George Nordhausen told ABC News.
"I think it was maybe a 4," added Gabriel Gonzalez.
"Really bad," said Sherry Hall. "I think it was close to Hurricane Andrew."
Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in 1992, was a Category 5. We now know that when it hit Miami, Katrina had maximum sustained winds of 73 mph -- not enough to be called a hurricane. A storm with wind speeds below 74 mph is categorized as a tropical storm.
"We are reminded how vulnerable we are," said Russell Pfost, senior meteorologist at the National Weather Center in Miami.
Raul Rodriguez, chairman of the Florida Building Commission, said people must become better educated about hurricanes if they continue to insist on living in the hurricane zone.
"The day will come when people, more than looking at an ad that has folks by a swimming pool, will be asking, 'To what standards were these buildings designed?'" Rodriguez said. "People are going to care more about the strength of the glass of the windows than the depth of the Jacuzzi."
As for New Orleans and Mississippi, the National Hurricane Center said there are two reasons why Katrina was so damaging. It was a huge storm, with hurricane force winds 150 miles across. It had been a Category 5 when it raged over the Gulf of Mexico, and meteorologists believe that allowed it to suck up huge amounts of sea water, which created a massive storm surge.