Tuesday, August 28, 2007

August 29, 2007 -- Two Year Anniversary

Hurricane Katrina Pictures: These are just a few of the images I will never forget. Here's what I did today to remember the events, those who suffered, and those who helped ease that suffering and continue to help us rebuild.

Photo: Severely damaged homes in piles of silt near the upper London Avenue Canal breach.

I gave a great deal of thought to what I planned to do to commemorate the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina -- today, August 29, 2007.

First, I spent an hour in quiet prayer and meditation, and remembered all those who lost their lives and all those still suffering the aftermath of this storm, including me. I also gave thanks for all the people from all over the world who came here and helped in some way. They came selflessly and without recognition. There was just too much to do, other than to say "thank you" whenever you met someone who was here from another place.

I also let the full force of my anger at the people outside of the disaster areas come forward. For some reason, a very vocal portion of the U.S. population has decided they are "bored" and "tired" of the whole Hurricane Katrina thing. It must be nice to have the luxury of boredom. I guess you never watched your mama or your grandmother die of dehydration and were powerless to do anything to stop it.

I took my mom's neighbors in after they were missing for 5 days and finally rescued in New Orleans East. They were riding the storm out with friends and felt they would be safer there than in their own condo in Algiers. It turns out, their condo would have been the safer place to be. There was little physical damage to those buildings and Algiers didn't flood at all. I had asked them to come to my house before the storm. There was plenty of room, but they didn't want to leave.

I also took in a Red Cross employee from California who stayed with us for 4 weeks, just long enough to experience Hurricane Rita. She was rotated out and debriefed after that. It was her first and only hurricane to date. They rotate in and out because the constant exposure to devastation and victims takes a serious emotional toll on all disaster relief employees and volunteers. Lucky they get to go home. We live in it, which is why so many here are still depressed. Our mental health system continues to be overwhelmed.

Second, I continued reading the book Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American Cityby Jed Horne. Jed Horne is the metro editor for the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his part in the paper's coverage of the storm and aftermath.

His book is a must-read. It tells the stories of those who stayed in New Orleans and experienced the storm, flooding, misery, and devastation of their home city. There are stories from the desperately poor to the rich and famous, reporters, photo journalists, doctors, patients, nurses, firefighters, Guardsmen, and police.

Sketch of New Orleans (shaded grey), indicating the locations of the principal breaches in the levees/floodwalls (dark blue arrows). Red dots show locations of deaths.

If any finger-pointing is done, it should be directly at President Bush for the terribly mismanaged relief efforts of FEMA. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, FEMA was placed under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. FEMA has been slowly gutted ever since because President Bush believed (believes?) the worst possible threat to the U.S. will come from terrorist attacks. He failed (fails?) to see that natural disasters can have a far greater negative impact on this country.

Food, water and transportation out of the city were held up by FEMA's chain of command and caused the majority of the human suffering that occurred after the storm was over. People at the Superdome and New Orleans Arena were left for 5 days or more with no mass effort by FEMA to provide even the basic necessities of food and water. The supplies were ready. They were held back from delivery by rumors of violence, and by Air Force One flying over the disaster area at inopportune times. FEMA also forbade any State rescue efforts, which were implemented by Tuesday after the storm was over Monday, and everyone knew the flood walls had failed. So many suffered and some died from the complete incompetence of the federal agency that's supposed to be in charge of handling natural and terrorist disasters. While people were suffering from dehydration, FEMA officials were having comfortable meetings trying to figure out what needed to be done. I've always believed that the words "we're from the government and we're here to help" is an oxymoron. FEMA's response to the disaster in New Orleans and the continued lack of the promised federal dollars for Louisiana's reconstruction have convinced me that saying is true.

Photo: Breach in 17th Street Canal levee in New Orleans, Louisiana, on August 31, 2005, showing the innundated Lakeview neighborhood on the right and the largely dry Metairie side on the left.. (NOAA)

This book also tells some of the story of why and how the levees failed. When they failed, 80% of New Orleans flooded from below one foot of water to over 10 feet of water, covering houses completely in some cases. You see, the levees survived the storm itself and were not over-topped as has been widely believed. When Hurricane Katrina's eye made landfall, it was a strong category 3 storm, not the category 5 storm it had been just before it hit. But it was a huge, slow-moving hurricane. Engineers knew that a large, slow-moving category 2 hurricane could do the same damage.

There is a long history of factors that contributed to the levee failures. No one agency can be blamed because the problem started centuries ago. Before man settled here in large numbers, the Mississippi River had a natural geological swing cycle of about 1000 years across the southern half of the state of Louisiana and back. The silt and sediment that came down the river were deposited in the marshes and shallow Gulf waters by the river's annual flooding which built more marshland and increased the size of numerous barrier islands. Marshland is essential for sucking the energy out of a hurricane and reducing its surge before it moves too far inland. From 1719 on, when Louisiana was a French territory, man has encroached on nature and built levees to protect homes and farmland from flooding. For nearly 300 years, Louisiana has been losing larger and larger amounts of land to erosion.

In 1913, a pump was developed that allowed engineers to drain large areas of swampland, fill it in, build on it, and keep it dry by pumping water out when it rained. Those original pumps are still in use today. Levees keep the river and canals out of the city, but they also keep water in the city when it rains. Water must be pumped out continuously to keep New Orleans dry. New Orleans is anywhere from 10 or more feet below sea level to a few feet above sea level. The oldest sections of the city are on the highest, least naturally flood-prone ground.

In 1927, after the Great Flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over all flood control and protection on the Mississippi River from its origin to its Gulf outlet. New Orleans was spared in 1927 because of some hard decisions of city and federal officials and some well-placed dynamite that blasted huge holes in the levees south of the city and devastated St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes. After World War II, draining and filling in swamps and building upon them continued at a much faster pace and didn't stop until August 28, 2005.

"It's like putting bricks on Jello" - Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, p. 159, copyright 2006, Random House, Inc., New York. That's what it's like to build any kind of structure (including levees and flood walls) on silt and sediment without sinking pilings down far enough to reach solid ground. One of the many reasons the flood walls failed was the army corps' flood wall designs were flawed. Sheet pilings were only designed to be sunk 17 - 23 feet below sea level. That depth is right in the middle of a huge layer of silt and sediment, nowhere near solid ground. Flood wall and levee failure was only a matter of time and bad weather.

Third, I called my local radio station to tell my brief story on the air during the afternoon show dedicated to the commemoration of Hurricane Katrina. This catastrophe has changed all of us forever. It showed the best and the worst of the human experience. But I have to say, except for FEMA and a few criminals, it was mostly the best. Many people went above and beyond, taking strangers into their homes and the strangers were grateful. There are no incidents of anyone abusing anyone who took someone they didn't know into their home, or of the homeowners doing anything negative to their unknown guests. The stories of all the people I heard on the radio today and over the last 2 years has restored my faith in the human race. Most of us are good and decent and will give the shirts off our backs and the extra rooms in our houses to help people we don't even know just because they need it.

To all my fellow Louisianians, Mississippians, and Alabamans who lived through the storm and helped in any way, Thank You!!!

Fourth, I want to take part in the discussion about how New Orleans should be rebuilt, and what protection measures should be put in place to keep a similar disaster from happening again. The scariest fact remains: can humans continue to fight nature and win? What measures must be taken to restore New Orleans and mitigate the damage human habitation and tampering have already done? Unfortunately, New Orleans' flood protection system won't even be rebuilt back to pre-Katrina standards before 2015. I know I get very nervous every time a hurricane comes into the Gulf of Mexico now. Hurricane Dean had us all on pins and needles until it made landfall in the Yucatan and again in Mexico in sparsely populated areas, Thank God. Dean was a category 5 storm, the third most intense Atlantic hurricane ever to make landfall. Visit Wikipedia for more information on Atlantic hurricane history.

Track of Hurricane Dean, August 2007 (National Hurricane Center)

Photo reference sites:
Wikipedia: Hurricane Katrina Levee Breaches

Thanks, Paul. Your pictures capture the suffering so graphically.

, Jed Horne for writing such a great book about this terrible event: Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City

Please read it and join the discussion of where we go from here and how New Orleans should be rebuilt. For more information, visit the One Book One Community website.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Video of Hurricane Katrina in Slidell, LA

This video of Hurricane Katrina was shot by elad29, posted on YouTube. This video was shot in Slidell, LA. Slidell is a suburban community east of New Orleans and closer to the eye of the storm. It was hit really hard by Hurricane Katrina. This is what it looks and sounds like to be in a hurricane:

Viewing it on video still pales to the comparison of actually being in a major storm, seeing and hearing what's on the video, and being afraid the structure you're in is going to come apart and harm you, or wondering if it will flood or if the big tree in the yard will end up across your roof.

Here is a book of many more pictures: Hurricane Katrina Picture Book
by Jeffrey Morgan

Many people chalk up the 2005 hurricane season, and hurricane Katrina in particular, to global warming. I'm a scientist and this is one of the topics I keep up with and have done so for 25 years. Humans only account for about 5%-10% of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are in our atmosphere. I'm not saying this is a license to go out and produce more carbon dioxide with abandon. We are only stewards of this planet, and we should do everything we can to protect it's natural balance in every area. But to blame these hurricanes on the short period of time man has had an impact on the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (since the industrial revolution) is naive and dangerous.

Please visit later posts for more of the story of what happened to New Orleans, why it flooded, and why there was so much human suffering and death.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Satellite Photos and Track of Hurricane Katrina

NASA satellite photo of Hurricane Katrina

Katrina was so huge, she took up nearly the whole Gulf of Mexico. Camille was a far smaller storm, but much more intense storm.

This is a different satellite view of Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico.

This is Katrina's Track from the Atlantic Ocean through the Caribbean Sea, over Florida, into the Gulf of Mexico, and it's final landfall 15 miles east of New Orleans.

The track of Hurricane Camille, one of only three category 5 storms to make landfall in the United States, isn't that similar to Katrina. (See next image). The other 2 category 5 hurricanes to hit the U.S. were Andrew in August, 1992 and Wilma in October, 2005.

This is Hurricane Camille's Track through the Gulf of Mexico. It made landfall on August 17, 1969 very near the mouth of the Mississippi River with devastating consequences.

Katrina's track follows the track of Hurricane Andrew (right) more closely than that of Camille.

Hurricane Andrew struck during August 1992, making landfall as a category 5 hurricane at Homestead, FL, just south of Miami. It proceeded into the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall again 20 miles west southwest of Morgan City, Louisiana, with a wind speed of 115 mph (a category 3 hurricane).

Even though Hurricane Katrina was a category 5 storm until it began to make landfall and fell rapidly to a category 3 storm, it killed more people and did more damage than the three category 5 hurricanes that hit the U.S.

Because of the storms like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Betsy (1965), the Saphir-Simpson Hurricane Scale is beginning to be called into question for its ability to predict storm damage and deaths. The fact that weaker storms did extensive damage and killed more people than some category 5 storms is evidence that more research is needed to make the SSHS a more accurate predictor of deaths and damage.

Here is a book of many more pictures of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath: Hurricane Katrina Picture Book by Jeffrey Morgan

References: Photos are from NASA satellites and NOAA Weather Satellites. Storm Tracks are from the National Hurricane Center.

My First Visit Back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

I made my first trip back to New Orleans five weeks after Hurricane Katrina and the week after Hurricane Rita. It was a clear and beautiful Friday evening. I'll never forget what I saw and how I felt that first drive back through Metairie. I had to take Airline Highway because I-10 was still closed going over Lake Pontachartrain.

As I drove into Metairie it was like a neutron bomb had hit the city. There was debris everywhere, gravel and stuff all over the roads. They had cleared the main roads so people could start returning home. But I saw no other cars. No people. And silence. Ghostly silence. All the roads should have been full of cars. There should have been traffic. But there wasn't any. None of the stop lights worked. I could see a few abandoned boats that must have been used to rescue people trapped on their roofs and the water lines on the buildings and houses where the flood waters had been.

I crossed the river on the Huey P. Long Bridge and took the Westbank Expressway to Algiers. As I drove by Westwego, Harvey, and Gretna I could see wind damage that went from really bad to barely hit as I drove east. Buildings went from being completely blown through with little structure left to partially intact to mostly intact. There were already "blue roofs", blue tarps covering the holes in the roofs, one small sign that a few people had returned.

The Westbank didn't flood like the Eastbank. A lot of the Westbank is actually on ground above sea level. Algiers is one of the highest spots at around 10 feet above sea level. But they are still protected from flooding by the Mississippi River, the Intercoastal Waterway and the Harvey Canal by levees that hold water several feet above sea level for deep shipping channels to move cargo in and out of the Port of New Orleans. You have to walk about 30 feet up the levee to see water that's only a couple of yards below the top. I remember being out walking and watching the ships go by as if they were floating on air. You have to look up to see them. My mother's old neighborhood was right next to the newly upgraded Intercoastal Waterway. It held during the storms and that whole area was spared from flooding.

My mother lived in Algiers and had just come home from Dallas. She evacuated to my sister's house up there. I live in Baton Rouge, and she didn't want to evacuate here because we would be hit by the storm, too. She figured if she had to evacuate, she might as well be somewhere the storm wasn't going. Out of that 5 week period, we had no electricity for about 2 weeks between Katrina and Rita.

Mom looked tired. She had been on the road for 12 hours that day. When I got to her condo shortly before the 6 p.m. curfew, she was sitting at her kitchen table eating a sandwich she'd packed for the trip with an expression I'd never seen on her face before in my 44 years of life. She looked lost and broken. My mom has been through some really tough times in her 72 years, but this had hurt her spirit. She also had a very mild case of pneumonia they found when she went for her physical in Dallas. They required updating vaccinations and a general check-up before coming back. She was being treated for it and had nearly finished her antibiotics. My shots were already up-to-date.

The first thing she asked me when I walked in the door was "Why did I come back here?" I had talked to her several times before she returned and told her I would go to her place, assess the damage, and let her know if she should come back at all. I also volunteered to get her place packed and get a mover to come and get everything for her. But she insisted on coming home. New Orleans had been her home for 28 years and she had close friends, her church and many activities she had participated in after she retired.

She had seen what they put on the news, the videos and pictures, but nothing could prepare you for being immersed in the horror. I was more prepared because of the destruction I'd seen in Baton Rouge. I knew it had to be much worse in New Orleans, but it wasn't the physical destruction that hit me. It was the eerieness and ghostlyness of the atmosphere. I could almost feel lost souls that still held on to their beloved city even though it was their time to go.

And then there was the stench of rotting everything, mostly garbage and refrigerators set out to be picked up. Garbage and refrigerators were piled up on the median all the way up Tulis Dr, the street to get to my mom's neighborhood. The smell got worse in the neighborhood because most people had returned home and cleaned out their houses and put everything down by the street for pick-up. The only problem was there was no garbage pick-up. The National Guard set up a schedule to come at least every other week, but that was nowhere near enough, so the smell continued.

My mom lost her refrigerator, too. It was her only physical loss. After weeks in the heat with no power, a refrigerator can grow some seriously nasty stuff, from mold to flies. There were flies and maggots everywhere. Not regular house-flies, but those little flies that are attracted to anything rotting. Best Buy and Home Depot had reopened for about 6 hours a day, so we went Saturday morning and got in line to buy her a new refrigerator. It was three days before they delivered it, so my mom had to keep her perishables in her ice chest. Winn-Dixie had also opened for 8 hours a day, and they had daily shipments of ice. We bought her enough groceries to last about 3 days and she planned to go grocery shopping as soon as the new refrigerator was installed.

Her microwave fried when we tried to use it, but her neighbor and good friend next door had an extra one and gave it to her. They were in frequent contact, so I wasn't worried leaving her there to go back to Baton Rouge, although he is only about 10 years younger than Mom and not in the best of health.

I flagged the National Guard truck down on one of their regular trips through the neighborhood and asked that they watch to make sure she and her neighbor were out at least once a day walking their dogs. I left them my name and phone number in case they didn't see either of them. I also had their contact information in case I needed someone to go to their doors and check on them. The National Guard was giving out ice and MREs to anyone who wanted them. They insisted I take at least one MRE so I did. I was tired and hungry when I talked to them, and I wasn't going to argue with anyone with a loaded machine gun. I left it for my mom to use for snacks, and surprisingly she ate them.

I drove home to Baton Rouge Sunday night and the despair hit me on the trip home. I started crying and cried for an hour on my drive home. I had been so busy just trying to get my mom settled and get her enough supplies so she would be ok until I could go back the next weekend that I hadn't processed what I had seen, heard, smelled, and most of all, felt.

That first wave of depression passed just in time to meet my ex-husband who was dropping our son back with me. He was ten then, and he knew something was wrong, but didn't say anything until his dad left. Then he asked me what was wrong. And all I said was I was in New Orleans getting Grandma settled and it was really tough seeing everything so broken.

That week I settled into a deep depression that got worse as time went on and I went back to New Orleans a lot of weekends to help my mom get ready to move before the next hurricane season. I went into a state of numbness and just went through the motions of life until mid-February 2006 when the moving van came and got all my mom's things and moved them to her new house in Plano, TX about 15 minutes from my sister's house in Richardson.

By February 2006, I knew that my New Orleans was gone forever. Its people held its culture and diversity, and half of them have never returned home. They started new lives in the cities they were evacuated to all over the country. I call it the New Orleans Diaspora. Those cities have gotten an injection of culture that will enrich them forever, but New Orleans' full culture and spirit may never return to its pre-Katrina era.

I seemed to wonder through my own life aimlessly going through the motions until my psychiatrist got me on a group of medications that work completely. That just happened in about March of this year (2007). I only have some memories of that year. I think I spent the rest of the time unconscious. I know I did a lot of financial damage to myself. I have the bills to prove it. My business floundered as did many. It has finally begun to come back to life. I started tutoring to earn extra money to make ends meet, but the contact with young people and the mental stimulation have been a Godsend, and I will keep doing it even if I don't need the money. They give me hope.

All the signs of deep depression are still around me. My house is still a wreck from that year and I'm getting to everything as quickly as possible, but there is so much to do. Nearly every room is filled with clutter. I would love for the show "Clean Sweep" to come in here, but they would have to do two shows to get my house back in order. I have 7 rooms that need serious cleaning out, plus my garage. I guess that would be more like 3 shows, then.

I'm just now able to recall and write about what I remember. The second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is this coming week on August 29. I'm going to do something to commemorate that day, but I don't know what. It may be spending an hour in quiet prayer and mediation, I might go to church, or it may be getting together with friends to give New Orleans a wake - a drunken party to celebrate life right before a funeral. All I really know is I've been so busy just keepin' on keepin' on that I haven't stepped back to honor what I've been through and what so many of my Louisiana and Mississippi brothers and sisters have suffered.

I haven't been back to the city since my mom moved. I get a very sad feeling whenever anyone mentions going down there. I'm not ready to go back yet. I don't know when I will be ready.

Hurricane Katrina Picture Book
by Jeffrey Morgan

For more pictures, visit http://www.katrinapictures.blogspot.com This site is also where I found a few pictures that represent some of the things I observed on this first trip.