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For forecasting chief, no joy in being right

Max Mayfield strives for accuracy, but worries about complacency.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
Published August 30, 2005

MIAMI - About an hour after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center were running on adrenaline and sugar. Few had slept much in recent days, if at all.

Director Max Mayfield's eyes were puffy, his voice slightly cracked from giving interviews to media outlets around the world.

"I don't even know what day it is," said Mayfield.

Mayfield and the team of forecasters in Miami had just achieved the near-impossible.

At 11 p.m. Friday, more than two days before Katrina reached land, the hurricane specialists said the hurricane would make landfall in the bayous of Louisiana, east of New Orleans. They pinpointed a town called Buras as the most likely place it would strike.

They were off by 18 miles. In the business of hurricane prediction, that's laser-beam accuracy.

"A superb forecast," Mayfield said.

It was not something to celebrate; any happiness gave way to melancholy.

"I hate to be bragging about that when there are people killed," he said.

Another worry of Mayfield's is that people will start to put too much faith in the hurricane center's forecasts and ignore warnings for other, nearby areas.

Mayfield pointed to his own hometown Miami as an example. People in southern Miami-Dade County were surprised by Katrina because the hurricane center said the storm would come ashore in Broward County and northern Miami-Dade. Instead it veered at the last minute, striking Homestead and Florida City.

This is the life of a hurricane forecaster: being reviled one moment and lauded the next.

Mayfield understands this. Which is why he won't stop hounding people, giving warnings, making calls when a storm approaches.

On Saturday night, Mayfield was so worried about Hurricane Katrina that he called the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi and the mayor of New Orleans. On Sunday, he even talked about the force of Katrina during a video conference call to President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

"I just wanted to be able to go to sleep that night knowing that I did all I could do," Mayfield said.

[Last modified August 30, 2005, 02:45:28]

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