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.

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