No Hollywood ending (Or the unbearable fragility of the most powerful nation on Earth)

I have had a really hard time writing about Katrina. It’s hard to write about things one doesn’t understand, and there is a lot I don’t understand about what happened there before, during, and after the hurricane.

The effect of Katrina was predicted.
Why did it take so long to react?

I do not understand why it took so long to give the order to evacuate the city. There was enough information to predict accurately what a category 5 hurricane would do to New Orleans.

A seminar of the American Meteorological Society’s held in June of this year in Washington DC described how the environmental disruption of natural protection combined with the social reality of New Orleans could have caused a serious disaster and catastrophic loss of human lives if a category 4 or 5 hurricane hit the city:

Dramatic land loss currently occurring in coastal Louisiana and projections of a period of possibly more powerful hurricanes in the Atlantic basin warrant a closer look at New Orleans as a case study in resiliency, with broad-sweeping implications regarding risk, human lives, and the fate of a major coastal region. (…)

The area contains 1.6 million people below Lake Pontchartrain and I-10 to the west. Some 700,000 people evacuated in Ivan with normal times to destination not uncommonly 12 hours. Contra-flow (all lanes out) modifications now permit eight out-bound lanes. However, with no glitches, this number of lanes will be inadequate unless a large part of the population evacuates before the contra-flow is ordered (when the hurricane could be as far away as the Florida Keys). The roads simply cannot handle the traffic otherwise.

In addition, poverty-induced households without cars (estimated at 57,000 households) are anticipated to bear the brunt of the casualties, with statistics of a possible 60,000+ dead in a category 4 or 5 storm. Use of public and private mass transport means buses, Amtrak, cruise ships, river boats (the latter two both going up river) is being considered and negotiated with each entity. Inland shelters to house such an exodus and the required early departure that would be necessary to reduce the risk of the vehicles/vessels being trapped in the storm put incredible constraints on mass transit options.

A report of the LSU hurricane center maps the areas that would be flooded in New Orleans and Baton Rouge during a category 2 or 3 hurricane and adds that “The situation deteriorates rapidly if Category 4 and 5 storms are considered. Any single storm can easily flood broad areas of both parishes to depths over land of 10 feet or more.”

In 2003 article on Civil Engineering Magazine, Greg Brouwer summarizes why the levee system in New Orleans would fail in a category 4 or 5 hurricane:

The design of the original levees, which dates to the 1960s, was based on rudimentary storm modeling that, it is now realized, might underestimate the threat of a potential hurricane. Even if the modeling was adequate, however, the levees were designed to withstand only forces associated with a fast-moving hurricane that, according to the National Weather Service’s Saffir-Simpson scale, would be placed in category 3. If a lingering category 3 storm—or a stronger storm, say, category 4 or 5—were to hit the city, much of New Orleans could find itself under more than 20 ft (6 m) of water.

In the 40 years since the design criteria were established for New Orleans’s hurricane protection levees, southeastern Louisiana’s coastline has been subsiding—settling in on top of itself—even as the natural height of the sea rises. A century ago any hurricane heading toward New Orleans would have had to traverse a 50 mi (80 km) buffer of marshland. Today that marsh area is only half as broad and the hurricane would be striking a city that itself sinks lower every day.

In the same article, Brouwer predicts what would happen to New Orleans after the storm:

Experts say a flood of this magnitude would probably shut down the city’s power plants and water and sewage treatment plants and might even take out its drainage system. The workhorse pumps would be clogged with debris, and the levees would suddenly be working to keep water in the city. Survivors of the storm—humans and animals alike—would be sharing space on the crests of levees until the Corps could dynamite holes in the structures to drain the area. In such a scenario, the American Red Cross estimates that between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die.

The real meaning of “mandatory evacuation”

It took quite a while for me to understand that the “mandatory evacuation” orderd by New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin really meant “people who can leave should do it now, those who are too poor or sick to leave stay.” In my european naivete, I imagined hundreds of trains and buses gathering to New Orleans and other areas threatened by the storm, ready to move people to shelters already set up to support the evacuation, in an impressive demonstration of the american initiative, strength, and organization.

Nothing happened. Who had a car and money started to leave slowly and so many stayed or were left behind, hoping it wouldn’t be so bad. After all, the Superdome would have kept them safe.

Why so slow and disorganized?

Katrina was bad, but what happened afterwards was much worse. Why it is taking so long to rescue people? It is hard to watch people waiting for days on a rooftop or trapped at the Convention center. It’s unbearable to see people who survived the storm dying because of the conditions they had to live after the storm was long gone. As much as some people can be disturbed by the looters and the angry, what drills a hole in my heart is the sense of betrayal impressed on the face of the people who are waiting to be rescued.

As much as we laugh at the cliches of Hollywood’s action movies, for once I would have wanted to see a Hollywood ending: the hero arrives, just in time, and saves the city. The rescuers overcome all the dangers and are finally here to bring water, food, and comfort. Nobody dies (except the bad guys of course).

Instead, nobody arrived. People started to get sick and die, and the others had to watch helplessly. We were all watching helplessly: the bodies in the water, the corpses in wheelchairs and the daily realization that New Orleans (not Darfur, not Banda Aceh) had become hell on Earth. (read today’s New York Time’s articles on the aftermath of the hurricane: here , here, and Paul Krugman’s OpEd)

In a country that can go to war so rapidly, has dreams of martian explorations, and wants to be the most powerful superpower in the world, the inability to take care of its own citizens is startling. Our president said that the United States don’t need help to deal with this catastrophe, but I have the impression that the people of New Orleans who are dying waiting for help that does not arrive would beg to differ.

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3 thoughts on “No Hollywood ending (Or the unbearable fragility of the most powerful nation on Earth)

  1. A catastrophe is a catastrophe- having lived through the Northridge earthquake in 1994, a government or no other organization for that matter can respond so quickly that it can make the pain and suffering magically not happen. As usual the media has focused on every negative aspect of the situation, too bad the actual rescue efforts and support that WAS there is ignored. This disaster shows how much we do expect the government to do everything for us- we get fast food, instant news, microwave dinners, etc and we want the government to take away any possiblilty of suffering- NOW!

    By the way, there were 17 edicts given to Iraq over a 12 year period and each one was willfully ignored. I would not call that rushing to war.

    As usual everyone is making this a political and racial issue (what else is new?)- they all need to shut the hell up already and do something about the disaster or send money to relief organizations.

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  3. God Bless the caregivers. The untold people that have rushed in with arms willing and offers of help. We are a nation truly blessed. The other countries that want to help relief efforts, money or what ever their gifts WE need to accept with a open heart and door. We are a great country but we do have friend’s who want to help. LET them.. it is better for everyone when we do. No one likes to have their gift spurned…… Thank you to all that have offered and all helping. I beileve that some good can come from all this destruction. Let us not forget to make sure there is real funding for emergencies such as this. We in America have a lot… Where is the ship HOPE??? It should be there helping… The VA hospitals are supposed to be our nations emergency health care, but due to major underfunding that services couldn’t even be put in to effect. Our local VA doesn’t even have a Emergency Room in a major metro area. Where is the funding for these essential services….. We need our big business and govenment to remember the America is for the people, by the people, and to the people of our country… Maybe we need to let our elected officials know what is really important to us…….. may we not forget.. Maybe FEMA wasn’t also property funded????? I pray for all as we rebuild and restore faith in our county and the values we stand for. CJB USAMedic 64-70

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