Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Great Deluge

I'm reading Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Gulf Coast, which is surely the authoritative account Hurricane Katrina, the events leading up to it, and its immediate aftermath. In no uncertain terms, Brinkley condemns the leadership of NOLA mayor Ray Nagin and, to a lesser extent, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco. Nagin was dilatory in declaring a mandatory evacuation of the city, apparently fearing hotel lawsuits should an unnecessary evacuation cause them financial hardship. As a result, many New Orleanians delayed their departure. Fatally, once Nagin announced a mandatory evacuation, the city failed to provide promised buses for the poor neighborhoods that needed them.

While a few New Orleanians stayed behind of stubbornness or ignorance or a spirit of adventure or even a sense of civic duty, most of those who stayed were poor and/or infirm. They did not own cars. They did not own televisions, the primary source of information about Katrina. They certainly did not have internet access. And in the end, city leaders left them to fend for themselves.

Nagin also ignored the findings of the Hurricane Pam simulation. Conducted by FEMA in 2004 and based on computer models developed at Louisiana State University, the simulation predicted with chilling accuracy the impact of a Category 3 hurricane on the city of New Orleans. In fairness to City Hall, New Orleans was a poor and broken city. It's hard to hold Nagin completely responsible for events that lay in the futures when he faced impossible day-to-day issues. Nonetheless, Hurricane Pam was one of a number of predictors that, Cassandra-like, city, state, and federal politicians ignored to the Gulf Coast's peril and destruction.

Real estate development and the relentless construction of ship canals led to the dredging and erosion of Lousiana's wetlands; the shrinking coastline reduced a vital natural shield against hurricane storm surges. Hurricanes gather strength over water, and the warmer the water the more strength they gather. Thus, the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico serve as an incubator, allowing storms that form in the Atlantic to become even stronger. Hurricane winds circulating in a counterclockwise direction suck water up into the vortex of the storm. When it moves over land, a hurricane loses force and releases the pent up water into what is called a storm surge. The more powerful the hurricane, the more extreme the surge.

Where they exist, wetlands play a vital role in absorbing the impact of a surge. The decline of coastal wetlands allowed Katrina to maintain strength until it moved inland over New Orleans and the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast. In New Orleans, the flooding caused by the surge overwhelmed the system of levees that the Army Corps of Engineers had guaranteed could withstand a Category 3 hurricane. (Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it hit the mainland.) Eventually, Katrina floods breached New Orleans levees in 53 places, causing the widespread death and destruction familiar to us all. So, while Katrina itself was a force of nature, the combined forces of development, shipping interests, and poor leadership combined to turn it into what was in fact a man-made catastrophe...

NOLA Happenings: For starters, this is the last weekend of Jazz Festival...If the crowds are too much for you, you can always head over to the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival...The civic minded among us won't want to miss the Audubon Zoo-to-Do tomorrow night...And who doesn't love a genuine 3 Ring Circus?...

Effortless beauty...

You thought Michelle Bachmann was bad? North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx claimed on the House floor that Matthew Shepard was murdered during the commission of a robbery and that the argument that he was the victim of a hate crime is a hoax. And she said this with Shepard's mother in attendance. Watch it and weep:

Having said this, you don't want to miss Bachmann's complete mangling of history here:

Republican president Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley (not "Hoot-Smalley") Act into law in 1930, almost three years before Franklin Roosevelt became president. Not only that, the American people "suffering" under Roosevelt's policies re-elected him three times...


sussah said...

Dear K., I haven't read the work you cite in this post. In fact, we can only absorb so much. But the situation was complex, otherworldly, surreal, apocalyptic, and not necessarily as represented in some of the journalistic accounts, although some of the articles I saw afterwards did capture a small inkling of the sense of tragedy. Like in my blog, time passes, new experiences happen and layer over, true healing and inspiration take place ... but Katrina stays there. On behalf of your N.O. audience, we dearly appreciate your kind attention to the recovery of New Orleans, I'm amazed by it. sp

Roy said...

K - Keith Olbermann talked about these two in his "Worst Person In the World" segment last night. Foxx got the grand prize, but Bachmann got runner-up credits. Hoot-Smalley! Are people in MN really that stupid?

K. said...

It must be the 6th District. Renegade Eye lives in Minnesota and he's not stupid. Neither is Al Franken, for that matter. Bachmann is a doozy, though.

Anonymous said...

K. said "In New Orleans, the flooding caused by the surge overwhelmed the system of levees that the Army Corps of Engineers had guaranteed could withstand a Category 3 hurricane."

This is sort of a myth. Some of the Levees in New Orleans East and St. Bernard were 'overwhelmed' in a way as you say. They were overtopped by storm surge water which caused them to erode and eventually breach. The Corps feels that is an acceptable outcome - if levees fail when being overtopped. I don't understand their lack of concern about flooding, but I can tell you most other engineering disciplines design their structures to survive expected events and like everyone says, levee overtopping is inevitable, eventually. Overtopping should not be a valid excuse for failure. That was the situation with about 45 of the breaches.

HOWEVER, our Corps' designed and built outfall canal floodwalls fell down like movie props long before even being overtopped by storm surge waters. In other words, the flooding of New Orleans on the west side of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal were not 'overwhelmed' by the storm. Those levees failed because of silly engineering mistakes by Federal Engineers. It was purely a man made disaster - an engineering catastrophe. New Orleanians really would like outsiders to know the truth.

Also, the tragedy, the bad behavior by our federal government, was much much more than just the initial response. The feds have been lying, breaking promises and tricking and cheating and slandering New Orleanians since 8/29 and they are still treating us very badly. It bothers New Orleanians that everyone recognizes the poor initial response, but don't even recognize the mistreatment of New Orleansians since.

You see, when they talk about the category level of a hurricane we can or cannot survive without flooding, they are basing things on an inappropriate metric. The appropriate metric to use is the height of the storm's 'surge'. That is how they decide the height of the levee. But, remember the height really doesn't matter if the levee is going to breach long before it is even overtopped.

Also, please know that the Lower Ninth Ward is only two of the 140 square miles that flooded in New Orleans and that the storm did not discriminate against anyone except the elderly - who died and have suffered the most since the storm. The media's focus on mostly the Lower Ninth ward has led to many of the myths.

K. said...

Anon, thanks for taking the time to leave such an extensive and informative comment. Isn't it the case that most of the deaths happened in the Lower Ninth?

doctorj2u said...

Deaths occurred all over the city.
The biggest factor in deaths was age. Almost all were elderly.
I bought "The Great Deluge" but truthfully I have not been able to read it yet. (I am not ready yet.) Do not take it as absolute truth though. It was rushed out and there are many errors in it. I also think the author had an axe to grind with Nagin (though he has proved himself worse than useless.) What you need to know is that there is no such thing as government on the state or city level. There never was. What Katrina taught me is that is not such thing as the federal government either.

K. said...

Doc: I've noticed a few errors myself, plus there are times when it strains for erudition. Nonetheless, Deluge is valuable for the first-person accounts and for what seems to me to be a pretty thorough assessment of the events leading up to Katrina.

I'm still only a third of the way through it, so I can't give a final assessment. Obviously, I didn't experience the events, either, so I depend on what I'm reading more than someone who can compare whatever the book is to having lived through Katrina and its aftermath.

K. said...

P. S. I do appreciate your comment. Thanks for taking the time.

Anonymous said...

K. said: "Isn't it the case that most of the deaths happened in the Lower Ninth?"

No. Totally a myth. There are so many myths. Many myths are even promoted by government. Here are a couple of links to maps produced by the local paper showing where flood victims died and where they were found - but these versions were very preliminary - a lot more bodies were found. The links:

click the links in October 2005 'where they died' and 'where they were found' on this Times Picayune web page for PDF death maps.

The lower Ninth Ward is marked as such. The old folks and kids died all over everybody's neighborhood.

Somewhere on this same page you can find demographics data and you will learn the truth: death, pre-storm evacuations, destruction... other than age, the flood did not discriminate. Yes, to some extent, a higher percentage of better off people evacuated before the storm, but believe me, plenty of poor people left and some of our middle & upper class stayed. The decision to evacuate is rarely based on personal finances.

No doubt, the Lower Nine had it as bad or worse than anywhere, but our destruction should never have become a partisan issue.

Look at those maps. Because of some agenda, THEY want you to believe it was mostly poor, uneducated, government dependent people victimized by the flood structure failures. But, it is NOT TRUE. This was just like as if it had flooded 80% (140 square miles of an urban setting) of your city 400,000. Imagine that. It was not just our poorest. Why do they want you to think that?

Outsiders rarely understand New Orleans. My family income is way way below the regional average, but I live across the street from people worth many millions. We both marinated in salt water for weeks and then were kept from returning by government and utility companies. We both had to fight hard to rebuild. We both rebuilt above the flood line even though we had seven feet of water in our old homes. It took us 27 months and him

Did you know 90% of our people in southeast Louisiana evacuated before the storm? Could your community do that? Would they? Did you know over 70% of homeowners, whether required or not, had flood insurance? The barge did not go through that lower nine floodwall until after it collapsed due to shoddy federal engineering. These are more of the myths - we didn't evacuate and weren't insured were easily sold lies.

Sympathize for the poor, but also consider the middle and even our upper class, of which many have been made poor by the floods. Remember our elderly who drowned and died of heat exhaustion in their attics waiting for rescue, but please also remember the tens of thousands of our elderly who died since the storm of hopelessness. Imagine our retired folks going from being proud financially and physically independent, living in their own paid for homes, on a fixed income to a situation where you know there is no hope of ever living on your own again and that you need to become totally dependent on family if you have any or the state. That elderly person looks around and sees what happened to everyone they know, all of their neighbors - all across the city. They are displaced somewhere they didn't want to be. Thousands died of despair within months of the levee failures.

Remember the families that still cannot afford to go home. Remember the three centuries' worth of family heirlooms and family art lost overnight.

I find it so strange that the possessions I miss most were usually made of paper.

The myth list goes on and on. There really is a conspiracy to distort the truth. Either that, or I am really crazy and to be honest, since the floodwalls fell, I'm just not sure which is the case. I'm certainly disillusioned if not disenfranchised. Obviously anyone who hunts down posts like yours that innocently include Katrina Myths and then writes long comments like this must be nuts. I'd call it PTSD except the trauma continues. Yes, let me remain anonymous.

It seems on purpose that justice does not extend to New Orleans. It really hurts.

Anonymous said...

If you liked Brinkley's Great Deluge, You might also like to read Dr. Ivor Van Heerden's 'The Storm', 2006. It is a short easy read and gives some of the technical reasons for what happened. Van Heerden is the guy LSU recently fired so as to avoid losing government research funding. Government wanted him silenced because he spoke out about the facts.