Katrina: The Warnings Were There

While the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., could not be reasonably foreseen until after the fact, despite the existence of credible intelligence, the devastation that a major hurricane like Katrina could cause to New Orleans was known. With better planning, enhanced building codes, building code training and enforcement, an organized evacuation plan, and reasonable funding for levee repairs and reinforcement, the New Orleans damage (at least $31 billion) and death toll (1577) could have been lower. In a way, New Orleans was fortunate that Katrina veered slightly sparing the City a direct hit and had weakened just before making landfall.

Although there can be no certainty on how much damage might have been avoided, the existence and activation of a cohesive mandatory evacuation plan when Hurricane Katrina, at the time a dangerous Category 5 storm, was bearing down on the City could have significantly reduced the loss of life. Instead, mandatory evacuations were not carried out when they should have been.

Just prior to the Katrina’s arrival on August 29, 2005 a mandatory evacuation utilizing every available mode of transportation (e.g. buses, cabs, and automobiles) had not been ordered even though there had been ample warning since the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and National Weather Service (NWS) had been issuing bulletins a full two days before the hurricane struck. Instead residents were given the option to leave, to remain in their residences at their own risk or to be sheltered within the city in unsafe areas, most notably The New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome. Neither was immune to potential destruction as was forewarned.

To compound matters, rescuers were slow to arrive (also forewarned) since resources were not deployed closer to the City as Katrina approached, in preparation for the search, rescue and relief operations that would be needed in its aftermath. As a result, it took four days before much needed necessities (e.g. food, water, clothing, and medicines) and personnel began arriving. Five days after Katrina had struck with winds between 135-145 MPH, people were still stranded on roofs. Accordingly additional lives were lost directly because the initial relief efforts were ineffective and disorganized. At the same time anarchy and chaos gripped the City.

When speaking at a press conference, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff stated, “…planners had anticipated that water would rise above the levees containing Lake Pontchartrain, but that the levees would not be breached. We didn’t merely have the overflow. We actually had the break in the wall. And I will tell you that really that perfect storm of combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of planners and maybe anybody’s foresight.” He also added, “Nature was unhelpful” in terms of giving sufficient warning.[1]

Actually there were plenty of warnings. Below are the bulletins issued by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and National Weather Service (NWS), some graphic and detailed about the potential for severe flooding, damage, and loss of life:

HURRICANE KATRINA ADVISORY NUMBER 17

NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL

10 AM CDT SAT AUG 27 2005

…CATEGORY THREE KATRINA MOVING WESTWARD IN THE SOUTHEASTERN GULF OF MEXICO…EXPECTED TO TURN WEST-NORTHWESTWARD AND STRENGTHEN…

AT 10 AM CDT…1500Z…A HURRICANE WATCH IS IN EFFECT FOR THE SOUTHEASTERN COAST OF LOUISIANA EAST OF MORGAN CITY TO THE MOUTH OF THE PEARL RIVER…INCLUDING METROPOLITAN NEW ORLEANS AND LAKE PONCHARTRAIN. A HURRICANE WATCH MEANS THAT HURRICANE CONDITIONS ARE POSSIBLE WITHIN THE WATCH AREA…GENERALLY WITHIN 36 HOURS.

HURRICANE KATRINA ADVISORY NUMBER 21

NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL

4 AM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005

…DANGEROUS CATEGORY FOUR HURRICANE KATRINA CONTINUES WEST-NORTHWESTWARD BUT EXPECTED TO TURN NORTHWARD… …NEW TROPICAL STORM WARNINGS ISSUED FOR NORTHERN GULF COAST…

A HURRICANE WARNING IS IN EFFECT FOR THE NORTH CENTRAL GULF COAST FROM MORGAN CITY LOUISIANA EASTWARD TO THE ALABAMA/FLORIDA BORDER…INCLUDING THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS AND LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN. A HURRICANE WARNING MEANS THAT HURRICANE CONDITIONS ARE EXPECTED WITHIN THE WARNING AREA WITHIN THE NEXT 24 HOURS. PREPARATIONS TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY SHOULD BE RUSHED TO COMPLETION.

BULLETIN

HURRICANE KATRINA ADVISORY NUMBER 23

NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL

10 AM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005

…POTENTIALLY CATASTROPHIC HURRICANE KATRINA…EVEN STRONGER…HEADED FOR THE NORTHERN GULF COAST…

A HURRICANE WARNING IS IN EFFECT FOR THE NORTH CENTRAL GULF COAST FROM MORGAN CITY LOUISIANA EASTWARD TO THE ALABAMA/FLORIDA BORDER…INCLUDING THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS AND LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN.

URGENT – WEATHER MESSAGE

NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA

1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005

…DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED…

HURRICANE KATRINA…A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH…RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.

MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL…LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.

THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL. PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE…INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.

HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY…A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT.

AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD…AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS…PETS…AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.

POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.

THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING…BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE KILLED.

AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEAR HURRICANE FORCE…OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE…ARE CERTAIN WITHIN THE NEXT 12 TO 24 HOURS.

ONCE TROPICAL STORM AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS ONSET…DO NOT VENTURE OUTSIDE!

HURRICANE KATRINA ADVISORY NUMBER 24

NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL

4 PM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005

…POTENTIALLY CATASTROPHIC HURRICANE KATRINA HEADED FOR THE NORTHERN GULF COAST…

A HURRICANE WARNING IS IN EFFECT FOR THE NORTH CENTRAL GULF COAST FROM MORGAN CITY LOUISIANA EASTWARD TO THE ALABAMA/FLORIDA BORDER…INCLUDING THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS AND LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN. PREPARATIONS TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY SHOULD BE COMPLETED THIS EVENING.

It should be noted that The National Hurricane Center (NHC) describes a “catastrophic hurricane” in the following way:

”Storm surge generally greater than 18 feet above normal. Complete roof failure on many residences and industrial buildings. Some complete building failures with small utility buildings blown over or away. All shrubs, trees, and signs blown down. Complete destruction of mobile homes. Severe and extensive window and door damage. Low-lying escape routes are cut by rising water 3-5 hours before arrival of the center of the hurricane. Major damage to lower floors of all structures located less than 15 ft above sea level and within 500 yards of the shoreline. Massive evacuation of residential areas on low ground within 5-10 miles (8-16 km) of the shoreline may be required.”

However, these were not the only warnings about the threat New Orleans faced from a major hurricane and the catastrophic harm a Category 4 or 5 storm would cause.

Back in November 2004 after New Orleans had averted a close call with Hurricane Ivan, another strong storm, The Natural Hazards Observer asked, “What if Hurricane Ivan Had Not Missed New Orleans?” The answer was startling and accurate:

”Hurricane Ivan would have:

Pushed a 17-foot storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain;

Caused the levees between the lake and the city to overtop and fill the city ‘bowl’ with water from lake levee to river levee, in some places as deep as 20 feet;

Flooded the north shore suburbs of Lake Pontchartrain with waters pushing as much as seven miles inland; and inundated inhabited areas south of the Mississippi River. Up to 80 percent of the structures in these flooded areas would have been severely damaged from wind and water. The potential for such extensive flooding and the resulting damage is the result of a levee system that is unable to keep up with the increasing flood threats from a rapidly eroding coastline and thus unable to protect the ever-subsiding landscape.”[2]

In the aftermath of Katrina, 80% of New Orleans was flooded and underwater, the City had no power for weeks and much of the area remained uninhabitable for three months or longer. Again, The Natural Hazards Observer was on the mark:

“…it is estimated that it would take nine weeks to pump the water out of the city, and only then could assessments begin to determine what buildings were habitable or salvageable. Sewer, water, and the extensive forced drainage pumping systems would be damaged. National authorities would be scrambling to build tent cities to house the hundreds of thousands of refugees unable to return to their homes and without other relocation options. In the aftermath of such a disaster, New Orleans would be dramatically different, and likely extremely diminished, from what it is today…

…Regional and national rescue resources would have to respond as rapidly as possible and would require augmentation by local private vessels (assuming some survived). And, even with this help, federal and state governments have estimated that it would take 10 days to rescue all those stranded within the city. No shelters within the city would be free of risk from rising water,” [3] The Natural Hazards Observer also reported in 2004 reinforcing the need to evacuate everyone from the city. And with the statement that “no shelters” within the city would be safe from floodwaters, it made little sense endangering people in the Convention Center and Superdome.

With the first National Hurricane Center (NHC) and National Weather Service (NWS) warnings out a full two days before Katrina struck it is feasible that an organized evacuation utilizing every available vehicle could have removed the vast majority of people prior to hurricane’s arrival.

When an evacuation was undertaken during Ivan’s threat, approximately 600,000 people (50% of the City’s population) fled in their own vehicles from September 13-15 according to The Natural Hazards Observer when “contraflow” (the use of all lanes to flow out of the city) was implemented. It took nearly 11 hours for people to make the normally 1½ hour journey toward the northwest and Baton Rouge demonstrating that despite over-reliance and shortfalls of “contraflow,” a near complete evacuation was possible with effective deployment of all available vehicles.

The conclusion of The Natural Hazards Observer’s 2004 report:

“Should this disaster become a reality, it would undoubtedly be one of the greatest disasters, if not the greatest, to hit the United States, with estimated costs exceeding 100 billion dollars (overall Katrina caused $75 billion in damage). According to the American Red Cross, such an event could be even more devastating than a major earthquake in California. Survivors would have to endure conditions never before experienced in a North American disaster.” [4]

Second, the possibility that levee failures could occur from a powerful storm was also known. “According to the Times-Picayune… Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Joe Allbaugh ordered a sophisticated computer simulation of what would happen if a Category 5 storm hit New Orleans [in 2002]. Joseph Suhayda, an engineer at Louisana State University who worked on the project, described… what… could happen: …some part of the levee would fail. It’s not something that’s expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing. The most continuous barrier is the south levee, along the river. That’s 25 feet high, so you’ll see the water pile up on the river levee.”[5]

Third, prior to the 9/11 attacks, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report “detailed the three most likely catastrophic disasters that could happen in the United States: a terrorist attack in New York, a strong earthquake in San Francisco, and a hurricane strike in New Orleans.” [6] It was because of this assessment that a hurricane simulation was held in 2002 to determine what “would happen if a category 5 storm [struck, and] when the exercise was completed it was evidence that we were going to lose a lot of people. We changed the name of the [simulated] storm from Delaney to K-Y-A-G-B… kiss your ass goodbye… because anybody who was here as that category five storm came across… was gone, ” Walter Maestri, the emergency coordinator of Jefferson Parish in New Orleans recounted.[7]

Fourth, federal, state and local officials knew as far back as the late 1960s that New Orleans was highly vulnerable. Yet after the Army Corps of Engineers spent over $430 million through 1995-2005 (spurred after six died in a major rainstorm in May 1995) on the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA) to reinforce levees and pumping stations, at least $250 million of critical projects remained when funding for SELA was significantly reduced due to the drop in revenues from federal tax cuts and the high costs of the Iraq War and homeland security.

The Times-Picayune wrote on June 18, 2004: “The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don’t get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can’t stay ahead of the settlement…”[8]

Although the federal government restored some funding, it was insufficient. Ironically, when Hurricane Katrina struck, the Senate had been seeking to restore some of the SELA funding cuts in 2006, while contractors were in the process of repairing the 17th Street Canal levee where the main breach had occurred flooding much of New Orleans.

In conclusion there were ample warnings from the National Hurricane Center (NHC), National Weather Service (NWS) and previous studies. If these warnings and the persistent pleas for additional funding to shore up the City’s levee defenses had not been ignored, a mandatory evacuation had been carried out, and rescue and emergency resources had been deployed near New Orleans in advance of the expected landfall, the damage to and loss of life could have been mitigated.

____________________________

[1]Eric Lipton and Scott Shane. Homeland Security Chief Defends Federal Response. The New York Times, September 4, 2005. 26.

[2]Matthew Barge. Is Bush to Blame for New Orleans Flooding? FactCheck.org. 2 September 2005. 4 September 2005. [http://www.factcheck.org/article.aspx?docID=344]

[3]Matthew Barge. Is Bush to Blame for New Orleans Flooding? FactCheck.org. 2 September 2005. 4 September 2005. [http://www.factcheck.org/article.aspx?docID=344]

[4]Matthew Barge. Is Bush to Blame for New Orleans Flooding? FactCheck.org. 2 September 2005. 4 September 2005. [http://www.factcheck.org/article.aspx?docID=344]

[5]Will Bunch. Did New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen? ‘Times-Picayune’ Had Repeatedly Raised Federal Spending Issues. Editor & Publisher. 31 August 2005. 4 September 2005. http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001051313

[6]Will Bunch. Did New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen? ‘Times-Picayune’ Had Repeatedly Raised Federal Spending Issues. Editor & Publisher. 31 August 2005. 4 September 2005. http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001051313

[7]Will Bunch. Did New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen? ‘Times-Picayune’ Had Repeatedly Raised Federal Spending Issues. Editor & Publisher. 31 August 2005. 4 September 2005. http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001051313

[8]Will Bunch. Did New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen? ‘Times-Picayune’ Had Repeatedly Raised Federal Spending Issues. Editor & Publisher. 31 August 2005. 4 September 2005. http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001051313



Source by William Sutherland

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