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Hurricane Rita:
A Comparison of Winds and Storm Surge for
South-Central Louisiana


Montra Lockwood, Service Hydrologist
Felix Navejar, Science & Operations Officer
Sam Shamburger, Meteorologist
 
Hurricane Rita struck the coast of Southwest Louisiana during the early morning hours of September 24, 2005.  Earlier in the week, this powerful storm reached Category 5 strength as it trekked northwest across the Gulf of Mexico.  The hurricane had weakened slightly to a strong Category 4 storm a couple of days prior to landfall.  As the storm approached the coast, Rita weakened to a Category 3 with winds nearly 120 mph.  The storm made landfall near Johnson Bayou in western Cameron Parish Louisiana, and continued to move northwest into Southeast and Eastern Texas, bringing hurricane force winds 150 miles inland.
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Hurricane Rita caused considerable damage across South-Central Louisiana, especially along the coastal parishes.  Tropical storm force winds were experienced for an extended period of time across South-Central Louisiana, with the strongest winds near the coast.  Winds were generally east to southeast much of the time, resulting in increasing water levels on Friday the 23rd and Saturday the 24th.   Several homes, businesses and other structures suffered damage as a result.
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The National Weather Service (NWS) in Lake Charles has completed a comparison of the storm surge with the strength and direction of the winds associated with Hurricane Rita as it made landfall.  Wind data are provided courtesy of NWS Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) sites at the Lafayette Regional Airport, the Acadiana Regional Airport at New Iberia, Marsh Island, and Salt Point. Water data have been obtained from NOS sites and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) river gage locations across South-Central Louisiana.  All references to time are in Central Daylight Time (CDT), and water level data have been referenced to Mean Sea Level (MSL).
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On September 23, Hurricane Rita was moving northwest across the Gulf, approaching the Louisiana coastline.  Several hours before landfall, the circulation around the storm produced northeasterly winds across South-Central Louisiana.  Around midday, a little more than 12 hours before landfall, sustained winds were tropical storm force (39 mph) along the south central Louisiana coast near Salt Point and at Marsh Island.  Water levels at locations across the Vermilion basin were generally steady.
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During the afternoon and early evening, winds were beginning to turn east over the coastal parishes.  Hurricane force (74 mph) gusts were likely occurring across Marsh Island during the afternoon hours.  Hurricane force winds became sustained along the Louisiana coastline during the late afternoon into the early evening hours, gradually turning southeast.  Water levels at the NOS gage at the Freshwater Canal Locks began rising, nearing an initial crest of 5 feet, then declining slightly.  At the NOS gage site at Cypremort Point, on the northeast side of Vermilion Bay, slight fluctuations were seen, followed by a decrease. Unfortunately, the sensors at these two sites failed just before midnight, and any surge data was unavailable after this time.  Since winds were generally east or southeast along the coast, water levels did not drop drastically prior to the surge moving inland.
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Around midnight, the storm was spinning just off the southwest Louisiana coastline.  Along the South-Central coast, winds were southeasterly around 50 to 70 mph.  Many of the wind sensors failed as the storm approached the coast.  However, the gage at Lafayette Regional Airport remained operational.  As the storm made landfall between 2 and 3 AM CDT on the 24th, the wind direction turned southeasterly at Lafayette. Wind speeds at Lafayette were around 30 to 40 mph with gusts as high as 56 mph during the first few hours after landfall.  Water levels in the Vermilion basin began rising sharply just before midnight, and continued rising for several hours.  As the surge moved inland, rises at the river gages progressed in a south to north fashion.
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Once the storm moved inland, south or southeasterly winds continued across South- Central Louisiana as the eye passed west of these locations.  Speeds gradually decreased, but remained above tropical storm force during the morning.  Water levels continued to rise for approximately the next 12 hours across the Vermilion basin.  Inland, the storm surge took several hours to crest.  Across the coastal parishes of South-Central Louisiana, surge values of 10 to 15 feet were common.
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To view graphical wind and storm surge data for South-Central Louisiana, click here.

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