September 10, 2005

On August 30th, the hurricane named Katrina came ashore near the Louisiana-Mississippi border. Mississippi coastal cities were destroyed and coastal Louisiana was flooded, but New Orleans “dodged the bullet” as Katrina weakened somewhat and diverted a bit to the east shortly before landfall. By the next morning, however, well after the passage of the hurricane’s center, the levees had begun to break down and New Orleans began to flood. It rapidly became apparent that this was the largest natural disaster ever to hit the United States, clearly surpassing the San Francisco Earthquake of almost a century before.

Even before the storm winds had subsided, the carping began. Before the first looter/sniper shot at the first policeman, there were claims that federal units should already have been there. There were claims that we all knew what would happen in a storm like this. There were claims we should have, but didn’t, have a plan. There were (and continue to be) claims that large groups of refugees were left (some say deliberately) without food, water, or medical attention. And, of course, there were the claims that the response to this hurricane — especially the federal response — was delayed by racism and that specific groups were selected for denial of aid. On all these counts and more, I have my doubts. (Added note: Links in this paragraph link to posting sections below.)

Reason to Know

Did we have reason to know what a category 4 hurricane would do to the Gulf coast? Looking back, there were a number of predictions and simulations that came amazingly close to what actually happened. As is so often the case, though, there were many more that were far off. Very far off. Which predictions and which simulations were right seems pretty clear in hindsight. It really wasn’t anywhere near that clear before. And, or course, those predictions and simulations were wrong for other “similar” hurricanes.

Maxim: Hindsight is 20/20. Foresight is legally blind.

Prior experience wasn’t much help, either. For the same kinds of reasons. Katrina came ashore as a category 4 hurricane. Last year’s hurricane Charley came ashore as a category 5 — a stronger hurricane. But Charley left a 10 mile wide swath of major damage, while Katrina’s major damage swath was more than 200 miles wide. The Gulf coast’s benchmark hurricane, Camille, came ashore just about the same place as did Katrina. And Camille came ashore as a category 5 — a stronger hurricane than Katrina. The fact that Katrina weakened into a category 4 storm some hours before landfall caused some area residents to figure “We made it through Camille OK. We can make it through Katrina.” Many of those people barely escaped with their lives, as Katrina did much more damage — over a much broader area — than did Camille.

Katrina is now the benchmark hurricane. It may not have been a category 5 storm, like some others that have reached our shores, but it is clearly the most destructive storm ever to hit the U.S. What demonstrated Katrina’s destructiveness most clearly to me was what it did to some very widely separated bridges. Both the bridge over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana (left, below) and that over Bay St. Louis in Mississippi (right, below) were destroyed. Even the most destructive storms normally don’t do this kind of damage.

Bridge north of New Orleans, LABridge east of Biloxi, MS

Bridges are built to take extraordinary amounts of punishment. A storm that destroys homes, businesses, hotels, and casinos is still unlikely to damage major bridges. And yet, the damage to these and other bridges between New Orleans and Mobile is extreme. Even most category 5 hurricanes will be unable to cause this level of damage — especially in such distant locations.

Perhaps we need some additional characteristic to be identified, either in addition to or in palce of the peak sustained winds (category), to characterize hurricanes and typhoons. The current specification is clearly insufficient.

No Plan

The fact that a plan was not successfully executed does not mean there was no plan. Just ask New Orleans’ Mayor Nagin. His city’s evacuation plan called for the use of city and school buses to evacuate those who could not escape the city on their own. But that part of the plan was never activated, and those people were left trapped in their homes or at centers like the Superdome while the buses that were supposed to evacuate them stayed parked and drowned. Requests for an early and mandatory evacuation declaration were also ignored — by more than one executive.

There was a federal plan as well as the state and local plans. There was some variety of disaster declaration made while Katrina was still in the Gulf of Mexico. We know because, as part of that plan, the Albuquerque DMAT (Disaster Medical Assistance Team) was activated. The team was waiting in Houston when Katrina brushed New Orleans, ready to go into New Orleans as soon as the storm passed.

The Albuquerque DMAT provided medical support in the Superdome. Their operations were moved to Louisiana State University several days later, when they were no longer needed at the Superdome. The news stories on the DMAT in the Albuquerque Journal are part of the reason we in New Mexico know the persistent statements that the reports that the people in the Superdome were without food, water, and medicine were untrue.

Maxim: No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

That maxim is true whether the enemy is a foreign army or a disaster. The “fog of war” applies to disasters, too. Things get fouled up. Plan pieces fail. Things do not go as expected. That’s normal in such circumstances. We can either complain that performance has not been perfect, or we can continue all efforts to accomplish the rescue tasks — and be glad that performance has been better this time than it has ever been before (yes, it really has been!) and doubtless will be still better in future disasters.


I heard the statements by Senator Kennedy and Jesse Jackson and others that people were dying in New Orleans because of racism. I have read the reports of the statements made by Democratic party chairman Howard Dean and the Congressional Black Caucus and others to the same effect. These statements all said, explicitly or implicitly, that our national leadership wanted “these people” to die because they were black. They were all in the vein of “If they were white, they would already be rescued.”

“If they were white, they would already be rescued.”?!? Maybe they should tell that to the people of Waveland, Mississippi, 35 miles east of New Orleans. Katrina essentially wiped that small city off the map. (I saw a report on Waveland on Fox News on September 7th. It was reported in an AP story in the Arizona Daily Star on September 1st.) Only one building remained standing, and it was damaged severely enough that it may have to be demolished and replaced. And yet, as of September 7th, even the Red Cross hadn’t yet reached the town, much less any of the federal agencies. Meanwhile, the refugees from New Orleans — the ones whose rescues were supposedly delayed by racism — were settling down in other cities and states, including New Mexico.

With all due respect to Messrs. Kennedy, Jackson, Dean, et al., the true state of race relations in (nearly all of) this country is shown in the pictures on this soapbox page. As noted in a comment there, these days, “Race is only an issue for those who seek to profit from it, or for those who seek to blame it.” Are there still racists in America? Certainly. Also in France, Bosnia, Iran, Indonesia, Korea, and every other nation in the world. They come in all colors, in this country and in the others. They are of all genders and ethnicities. In some countries, the racists control the society and the government. But not here.

We still have disputes in this country. But, though some may try to give them a racial character, they are seldom racial disputes. They are really disputes between the pink and grey tribes — and sometimes among the wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. Yes, we’re still far from perfect, but we have our national ideals and a commitment to strive toward them. And we have made a lot more progress than some would have us believe.

Update: There are reports now that some areas of New Orleans began flooding, presumably by the category 4 storm surge coming over the top of the category 3 levees, before the time Katrina’s eye passed east of the city. This does not change what I have said above.

Update: I’ve now heard a truly insane claim. It was in an audio clip in which the preacher claimed a source he trusts — a friend — told him the New Orleans levees were breached on purpose, to kill blacks, and that he (the friend) had seen a 25 foot crater where the levee should have been. The best response to this was that of the talk show host, which was something close to “So his friend could see a 25 foot crater under 25 feet of rushing muddy water. Has he asked if his friend is still dating Lois Lane?”

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