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Hurricane Rita:
A Comparison of Winds and Storm Surge
for
Southwest 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 24th, 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 it approached the coast, Rita weakened to a Category 3 storm with winds nearly 120 mph.  The hurricane came ashore 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.

The worst damage from Hurricane Rita occurred along the Southwest Louisiana coastline.  Hurricane force winds and storm surge battered the coasts of Cameron and Vermilion Parishes for several hours as the storm moved inland.  As a result, many homes, businesses and other structures were completely destroyed.

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 is provided courtesy of the NWS Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) at Lake Charles, the National Ocean Service (NOS) site in Cameron, as well as other automated gage systems owned by national, state or local entities.  Water data is provided courtesy of NOS sites and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) river gages, and crest data based on water mark surveys courtesy of local engineers.  All references to time are in Central Daylight Time (CDT), and water level data has been referenced to Mean Sea Level (MSL).

Southwest Louisiana first began to feel the effects of the approaching storm early on Friday, September 23rd.  Several hours before landfall, the circulation around the storm produced northeast winds across Southwest Louisiana.  Shortly after noon, a little more than 12 hours before landfall, wind speeds across Southwest Louisiana were beginning to gust to tropical storm force (39 mph).  River levels in the lower Calcasieu and lower Mermentau basins were steady or falling slightly.  On the north end of Calcasieu Lake, at Hackberry, water levels were dropping sharply, before the gage became inoperable.

As Rita�s eye approached the coast west of the town of Cameron, northeast winds increased.  By mid-afternoon, tropical storm force winds were sustained along the coast near Cameron, reaching Lake Charles within the next few hours.  At Cameron, water levels were generally steady until late afternoon, when they began increasing.  Winds at Cameron were northeast, approaching 50 mph by this time.  According to eyewitnesses, around 4 PM, water began piling up along the coast due to the strength of the winds, forming a "wall" of water just offshore.  In the lower Mermentau basin, water levels showed a decline through the afternoon.

By Friday evening, the storm was churning just off the Southwest Louisiana coastline.  Winds remained northeast across the area, strengthening to hurricane force by midnight.  Water levels at Cameron began rising sharply, reaching nearly 7 feet just before midnight.  Unfortunately, the gage failed after this time.  Inland, water levels decreased near Lake Charles as the strong northeast winds pushed water toward the Gulf.

Winds and surge were most pronounced across Southwest Louisiana.   Many of the wind sensors failed as the storm approached the coast.  However, the Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) at Holmwood (about 6 miles east of the Lake Charles Regional Airport) remained operational.  Although the primary wind sensor stopped operating at the Lake Charles airport, the RAWS wind sensor as well as a backup wind sensor and observations at the National Weather Service office indicated winds shifted east around midnight. At that time, water levels began to increase dramatically. As the eye made landfall between 2 and 3 AM on the 24th, the wind directions turned southeasterly at Lake Charles.  Winds speeds at Lake Charles were around 70 mph with gusts over 100 mph.

Storm surge was highest across Southwest Louisiana, just east of where the eye of Rita made landfall.  Surge values have been estimated around 15 feet along the immediate coastline based on watermarks inside buildings.  The surge traveled inland along bayous and waterways.

Once the eye moved inland, southeasterly winds continued across Southwest Louisiana.  Speeds gradually decreased, but remained above tropical storm force for several hours.  Water levels continued to rise for the next several hours, cresting around noon.

The National Weather Service office in Lake Charles also maintains staff gages on the lower Calcasieu River at the Port of Lake Charles, at Old Town Bay and on the west fork of the Calcasieu River at Sam Houston Jones State Park.  These gages are not automated, and must be observed manually.  Based on surveys within a couple of days after the surge crested and on eyewitness accounts of individuals who "rode out" the storm near these locations, the crests at these sites were estimated at 11.0 feet MSL at the Port of Lake Charles, at 10.0 feet MSL at Old Town Bay, and at 8.5 feet MSL at Sam Houston Jones State Park.  The 11.0 foot reading at the Port of Lake Charles is the second highest crest on record for that site.  Time estimates of these crests based on the eyewitnesses indicate the crests occurred around noon or early afternoon on the 24th.

To view the graphical wind and storm surge data for Southwest Louisiana, click here.
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