for National Geographic News
Hurricane Katrina's rampage across the U.S. Gulf Coast is causing uneasiness among officials in South Florida, where an even stronger hurricane blasted the Florida Keys 70 years ago today.
Like the devastating hurricane that tore into Louisiana and Mississippi last Monday, the unnamed storm that struck the Keys on Labor Day 1935 rapidly intensified as it neared landfall. It became the most powerful hurricane ever to strike the United States.
Irene Toner, emergency management director for Monroe County, Florida, said Katrina's devastation has made her more concerned about rapidly intensifying hurricanes. Monroe County includes the city of Key West and the Keys.
"There wouldn't be much left of Monroe County should something like [Hurricane Katrina] hit down here," Toner said.
Toner said she would welcome any new forecasting tool that would help Monroe County officials make better decisions about evacuations.
Scientists with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are trying to unlock the secrets of these hurricanes that suddenly explode into deadly monster storms.
They're developing a computer model that will allow them to accurately predict whether a hurricane will undergo rapid intensification as it's about to come ashore. They expect the new tool to be ready by 2007.
John Kaplan, a research meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, is one of the scientists working on the hurricane-intensification research.
He said some aspects of Hurricane Katrina's rapid strengthening last weekend were unusual. But he said conditions were "extremely favorable" for the hurricane to ramp up in strength so rapidly.
"I wasn't surprised," he said. "It behaved closely to what we expected."
Hurricane Katrina first appeared on August 23 as a tropical depression just west of the Bahamas. The storm gathered some strength as it crossed the Straits of Florida and came ashore near Fort Lauderdale as a Category One hurricane.
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