The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina—the Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist
Just when you thought fate couldn’t become any crueler for post-Katrina New Orleans, it did. A December article in Geophysical Research Letters concluded that—in addition to sinking—southeastern Louisiana is actually sliding into the Gulf of Mexico.
New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta sit on a “large listric normal fault system” that is sagging beneath the weight of sediment channeled by the Mississippi River.
By itself, the pace of this previously undetected movement seems relatively benign: The delta is shifting south at 2 millimeters a year, and subsiding at roughly 5.2 millimeters a year. As Roy Dokka, one of the report’s authors and executive director of the Center for GeoInformatics at Louisiana State University, told the Associated Press, this process resembles an “avalanche of material, except that it is happening very slowly. It moved about the width of two credit cards this year.”
Dokka’s choice of image is more apt than he perhaps knows: This seemingly minimal geological deficit carries with it a number of hidden charges, a fine-print disaster in the making. Combine this new evidence, for example, with well-documented studies indicating that the city was already subsiding approximately 2 inches a year, in part because levees prevent sediment from stabilizing the soft ground. Add decades of groundwater pumping and the disintegration of subsoil organic material, and by the end of this century the Crescent City is expected to have dropped an additional meter or so below sea level.
The bad news keeps coming: The Gulf of Mexico is rising upwards of 2 millimeters a year, a consequence of melting polar ice. The same global warming process is cooking the Gulf’s surface, funneling new energy into any hurricane moving across its steamy expanse. A lower city, higher and hotter waters, more-punishing storms: The end is at hand.
So Ivor van Heerden has long prophesied. The co-founder and deputy director of LSU’s Hurricane Center and director of the university’s Hurricane Public Health Center has been warning for the past decade about the potential devastation to New Orleans should a major storm crash into southern Louisiana. Even a weakening Category 3—which Katrina proved to be—would wreak unfathomable damage, he advised well before Katrina, the eighth major hurricane to surge past New Orleans in 45 years, crushed the Gulf Coast. As it neared landfall, he sent out e-mail after harrowing e-mail warning of the coming cataclysm. When New Orleans went dark, van Heerden lit up. As “one of the more notorious Cassandras of recent years, I was a pretty obvious target for the hundreds of reporters soon on the scene,” he writes. Appearing nightly on Larry King, and daily on morning chat shows and drive-time radio, as well as every other possible media outlet, he pounded local, state, and national officials for their criminal negligence and tin-eared politics; President Bush’s “pitiful flyover” was but one of many myopic moments. So van Heerden can be forgiven for wanting “to scream in frustration, and, yes, a bit of self vindication, ‘We told you so.'”
The Storm is not, however, an extended rant, because van Heerden decided he had another role to play. The epiphany came during one of his first visits to the still-submerged Lower Ninth Ward. Wading through some of the 30 billion gallons of seawater and sewage that had inundated the city, he stopped at a house in which he spotted a prized set of family photographs, high and dry on mantle. “The water was fetid, the air was rancid, I had seen a floating body not a block away, and there, right in the middle of this apocalyptic disaster, was a surreal vision through the open window of gowned graduates, smiling brides and grooms, proud parents and grandparents, happy babies. For some reason, this was the scene that put me over the edge and broke my heart.” This was also the scene that led him to think beyond the first-person singular: “Where were these people now? If even alive, what future did they have? How had they been served by their government? I felt I could and should speak for them, and I did.” Cassandra had found his clients.
In their service, van Heerden has written, with Mike Bryan, a chilling examination of abject social failure. More precise than Douglas Brinkley’s sprawling tome, The Great Deluge, and more scientifically informed than Breach of Faith, Jed Horne’s evocative memoir, The Storm recounts step-by-step how the levees buckled, the political establishment collapsed, the communications system went dead, and why the much-promised aid arrived so belatedly. You will have heard or read some of these details before, but van Heerden pulls them together to make clear that this was a human disaster of unimaginable scale.
Start with Pam, the hurricane that wasn’t. In July 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sponsored a war games-like planning session for a hypothetical “Big Blow” dubbed Pam. The weeklong session probed many of the exact issues that would erupt once Katrina hit: FEMA learned which neighborhoods would flood and to what depth, and what the human costs would be; it was tutored, too, on the impact a Category 5 storm would have on the levee and pumping systems, and on the communications grid. Evacuation plans were also tested; how would people escape, by what means, and where would they go? As for the latter issue, van Heerden had a suggestion: The U. S. Army should pre-stage, and then erect, multiple tent cities, as it has in Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere. His idea was pilloried by one FEMA official who snorted, “Americans don’t live in tents!” (In retrospect, those instant, temporary, and nearby camps might have been a godsend given the mass chaos, bungled evacuation efforts, and New Orleans’ continuing struggle to reclaim its workforce, now scattered across the country.)
Van Heerden denounces FEMA for its insufferable arrogance and bureaucratic lethargy, which also got a trial run during the Pam exercises. He levels charge after irrefutable charge that the agency’s catastrophic breakdown post-Katrina bespeaks a larger, more disquieting pattern: “Americans need to understand that their government is totally unprepared for major natural disasters, let alone the terrorist’s dirty bomb or biological/chemical attack. Don’t kid yourself. Very little, if anything, has changed since September 11, 2001.”
But van Heerden is most disturbed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Like FEMA, it has refused to take responsibility for its actions and inactions; like FEMA, it has tried to finger other agencies and individuals for the collapse of the system it built and promised would withstand a Category-3 hurricane. But its studied incompetence has been so pronounced, its ignorance about how badly it got things wrong, from basic geomorphology to structural design, has been so shocking that it is little wonder that van Heerden devotes more than 100 pages to the Corps’ screwups and cover-ups.
These chapters are not easy reading. Who, after all, really wants to know that public safety in New Orleans and elsewhere is in the hands of cocksure civil engineers whose inflated self-confidence in this case led to 1,300 deaths and imperiled the lives of so many others? Yet once you have finished these pages, you’ll understand the blunt indictment of Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish: “Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area.”
You’ll understand as well why van Heerden demands that “the same federal government that drowned New Orleans with the failure of its levees should compensate all of those who lost lives and homes.” Should it choose to rebuild and better protect “the City that Care Forgot,” van Heerden has sketched out an array of environmental and technological fixes in the final chapter. He does a nice job of describing why southeastern Louisiana has lost and must regain its marshes; how it can restore surge-protecting wetlands by redirecting the Mississippi’s flow and making its levees more porous; how shoals can be dredging up to reconstruct barrier islands; and how Dutch floodgate technology can bottle up fast-moving waters and minimize scouring waves. All that is missing, he acknowledges, is the necessary funds (which might top $250 billion) and the requisite “political and civic courage.”
Because cash and courage are in short supply, The Storm ends as a dirge. “The fight for the future of New Orleans is going to be a long and difficult one. I now picture a big theme park as the end result, a plastic place of no vitality” in which those “with the least resources are sure to lose the most.” The future will be grimmer still, van Heerden asserts, if “the right decisions are not made about the levees and the wetlands.” Absent a massive commitment to repair what humans have torn asunder, New Orleans will vanish beneath the waves, resurfacing only in legend as the Creole Atlantis.
Char Miller is director of urban studies at Trinity University and is author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism and the forthcoming Ground Work: Essays in American Environmental Culture.