Continuing with Brendan’s Defining Days of the Decade, now way behind schedule (oh well)…

#12: May 15, 2003: Becky and I Graduate From College
#11: November 7, 2000: The Election of a Lifetime
#10: August 14, 2003: The Great Northeast Blackout
#9: September 15, 2008: The Economy Implodes — And I Get A Job
#8: July 3, 2004: Becky and I Get Engaged
#7: July 2, 2000: The Day I Fell In Love

Number Six…


August 26, 2005: “Get The Hell Out”

Andy Warhol famously said that, in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Well, my 15 minutes of fame began in the unlikeliest way, with a simple blog post, composed in a government office in South Bend, Indiana, a little less than 72 hours before Hurricane Katrina’s eventual landfall on the Gulf Coast. In that post, I warned of the potential for an “unprecedented cataclysm” if the latest computer model tracks (above) were borne out, and added that “if I were in New Orleans, I would seriously consider getting the hell out of dodge right now, just in case.” The date was August 26, 2005.

When I wrote those words, I wasn’t saying anything exceptional or extraordinary — I was just responding to what seemed like a self-evident threat of calamity. I never could have imagined that my words would start a chain of events which, in the days and weeks that followed, would temporarily transform me into one of the world’s most discussed bloggers, landing me on national TV and radio and in the pages of the New York Times (and various other newspapers around the world), earning me a nomination for a national magazine’s “Blogger of the Year” award, and ultimately gaining me a part in a Spike Lee movie. But that’s exactly what happened, and it makes August 26, 2005, a defining day of my decade.

*    *    *    *    *

Having said that, my personal Katrina story — which, I hasten to point out, is an utterly insignificant footnote to the profound story of tragedy and outrage that is Hurricane Katrina’s legacy — actually began almost a year earlier, on September 14, 2004, with a post titled “Ivan: Worse than 9/11?.” The seeds of my hyperactive, hair-on-fire Katrina-blogging were planted that day, by Paul at Wizbang and his post titled “Pray.”

I’d known for years, of course, that New Orleans was the most vulnerable city in the country to a devastating hurricane strike. Everyone remotely familiar with U.S. disaster scenarios knew that. But I didn’t fully comprehend just how catastrophic a direct hit on the Big Easy could potentially be, until, with Hurricane Ivan threatening the Gulf Coast, Paul linked to a 2002 Times-Picayune article quoting experts who believed that a worst-case strike on New Orleans could “turn the city…into a lake as much as 30 feet deep,” shut the city down for 4-6 months, and kill as many as 100,000 people. “Jesus,” I wrote.

Hurricane Ivan turned right, as expected, and hit the Florida Panhandle, not New Orleans. But I filed away the contents of that Times-Picayune article in my brain, to be recalled the next time New Orleans was threatened.

*    *    *    *    *

That next threat arrived late on a Thursday night in August 2005 — the 25th of August, to be exact — when Hurricane Katrina, after its first landfall in the Florida peninsula, “turned southwestward and sped up a bit” while over land. The result? Katrina weakened less than expected (because she spent less time than expected over land, and much of it was over the wet, flat Everglades), and the trajectory of her future track changed enormously. I wrote: “What makes me nervous is that Katrina’s southwestward turn and refusal to weaken makes a New Orleans doomsday scenario considerably more plausible than it seemed just a few hours ago. Still unlikely, but more likely than it was.”

The next day, August 26, at 11:06 AM in Indiana, I quoted a reference in the latest NHC meteorological discussion to some computer models making “a large jump to the west over Louisiana.” I wrote: “My New Orleans nervousness increases.”

That nervousness transformed into outright alarm when, while at work at my work-study job at the U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown South Bend, I read this post by weatherblogger Charles Fenwick, published at 1:00 PM EST (2:00 EDT). Fenwick noted that “every global model plus the GFDL shifted its track to the west” in the mid-morning computer model run, and thus the models’ “[f]orecasts are now in a fairly tight cluster between eastern Louisana and Mississippi.” He added: “While it is generally unwise to hop onto one run of the models as the gospel, it is meaningful when every model makes the same type of shift. This definitely shifts the area of concern much further west than I had been figuring. Shreds my forecast track thinking as well as that of the NHC.”

Fenwick’s post directly inspired the most famous blog post I’ve ever written, published at 1:57 PM EST on August 26, 2005, titled “New Orleans in peril.” This is the post whose opening paragraph I would eventually read aloud as the intro to Spike Lee’s movie When the Levees Broke. It began:

At the risk of being alarmist, we could be 3-4 days away from an unprecedented cataclysm that could kill as many as 100,000 people in New Orleans. Such a scenario is unlikely — the conditions would have be just right (or rather, just wrong) — but IMHO, it’s not nearly unlikely enough to feel good about things. If I were in New Orleans, I would seriously consider getting the hell out of dodge right now, just in case.

I added some analysis of the latest computer models and what they could mean for a likelihood of a “worst-case scenario,” then added a caveat: “Hurricane forecasting is an extremely inexact science, especially when we’re talking about what will happen in 72+ hours. Hence my statement that the New Orleans scenario is ‘unlikely.’ … Katrina is going to hit somewhere along the Gulf Coast, but the actual odds of her taking any particular track, even the most likely one, are still quite low, because there are just so many possibilities. But despite that fact, if New Orleans is anywhere near the center of the risk area, residents need to prepare as if there is a 100% chance of a direct hit.” (As I would put it in a post the next day: “If you knew there was a 10 percent chance terrorists were going to set off a nuclear bomb in your city on Monday, would you stick around, or would you evacuate? That’s essentially equivalent to what you’re dealing with here.”)

Four hours later, after work, I added a philosophical post titled “Humbled by Katrina.” That was 5:54 PM. At 9:44 PM, I griped: “Residents of New Orleans and the surrounding areas need to realize now just how serious the threat from Hurricane Katrina really is. Much of the media seems convinced that this is still exclusively a Florida issue, which is just not true. Drudge’s headline is ‘Katrina could be Cat. 4 at second Fla. strike’ which is ridiculous, considering the current expected landfall is along the Alabama/Mississippi border, and that’s on the eastern edge of the computer-model guidance. That’s not to say a Florida landfall isn’t still possible — it certainly is — 025402W_sm-1but people need to be making preparations RIGHT NOW all along the northern Gulf coast, especially New Orleans.” A few minutes later, at 9:56 PM, I followed up with a post on the latest NHC discussion, titled “Models ‘cluster’ on near-worst-case track.” It included the new NHC forecast track at right, which I described as “very, very close to being the doomsday scenario for New Orleans.”

In between those last two posts, in an effort to spread the word about the growing threat — in the face of what I perceived as the MSM’s bizarre slowness to recognize the potential of imminent apocalypse — I sent Glenn Reynolds an e-mail at 9:47 PM, titled “Katrina-blogging and the threat to New Orleans.” Glenn had linked to my hurricane-blogging of various storms before, and I figured another Instalanche could allow my warning to reach at least a few folks in the threat zone. I wrote: “If you’re looking for some hurricane-blogging of Katrina, I’m on it. … I’m specifically focusing on the potential threat to New Orleans, which is the real story right now, as much as Drudge and others want to make this about Florida. … This could be The Big One; the city could literally be destroyed if everything comes together right (or rather, wrong).”

I didn’t realize until later that my link-whoring had been unnecessary. Glenn had already linked to my homepage back at 8:23 PM EST (9:23 EDT), saying simply, “KATRINA THREATENS NEW ORLEANS: Brendan Loy is blogging.”

The initial traffic surge from Glenn’s link was relatively muted by Instalanche standards, probably because it was being well after business hours on a Friday night in August. Even so, InstaPundit had put my Katrina coverage on the national radar, and that would ultimately lead to everything that followed.

At the time, however, I figured this was my one and only chance to expound my views about the New Orleans threat, and the need to take action immediately, to a national audience. So I followed up with a new post, titled simply “Evacuate,” containing this straightforward bit of advice:

I’m not a meteorologist. I’m just an amateur weather enthusiast, a law-student blogger who happens to be a hurricane buff. But if I lived in New Orleans, I would definitely leave at this point. Tonight. Barring a major change in the forecast, I expect the evacuation orders to come tomorrow. That will produce massive traffic jams and general confusion. My advice? Beat the rush; get out now. For it is imperative to get out. Katrina probably won’t destroy New Orleans — but it could. So if anyone in New Orleans is reading this, I’d personally advise you to get the hell out of dodge.

*    *    *    *    *

That brief update — which would become known as my “Get The Hell Out” post — was timestamped 11:22 PM. It was my last post of August 26. But I was awake for several more hours, eventually writing at 2:28 AM: “I’m going to bed now; by the time I wake up, I expect [Katrina] to be a major hurricane.” I was right — and 2:28 AM would be, by far, my earliest bedtime for the next several days.

The weekend that followed is a blur of sleep deprivation and almost ceaseless blogging about the impending calamity — and about what I perceived as the continuing slowness of government and media to adequately react, until it was too late to do anything except panic and pray.

By overnight Saturday into Sunday, as Katrina exploded into a Category Five monster, and the track continued to make a beeline for New Orleans, it became clear that I was witnessing, in what felt like slow motion, katrina-evacuationwhat would certainly be the greatest U.S. weather disaster of my lifetime. The most memorable moment of my own personal experience from those days occurred just before I lay down for a “nap” on Sunday morning, after pulling a bloggy all-nighter, as I watched Mayor Nagin finally order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans (about 24-36 hours too late, in my view). As I wrote at the time: the “live footage of cars streaming out of the city on both side[s] of the interstate, with the Superdome and the city skyline in the background, superimposed on CNN’s split-screen with the mayor and the governor ordering everyone out of the city, is really very, very eerie, strikingly apocalyptic.”

I said “apocalyptic” for a reason. I wasn’t worrying about a death toll in the low four figures, and severe damage to an American city and the surrounding areas, as ultimately occurred; I was worrying about a five- or even six-figure death toll, and the near-total destruction of the city of New Orleans. And I felt helpless to do anything about it.

Except, of course, to blog. So blog I did, sleep be damned. And my audience grew and grew.

*    *    *    *    *

On August 25, a pretty typical day for my blog in what I would come to think of as its “pre-Katrina” era, I received 972 “visits,” per SiteMeter’s definition. On August 26, thanks to that late-night Instalanche, the number jumped to 1,241. On August 27, the total was 2,381, courtesy of the prior Instalanche and another one late in the day. These were OK numbers, especially for a weekend, but certainly not unprecedented in my blog’s history — I’d gotten more than 15,000 visits in a day for a goofy post about Joe Lieberman back in January.

katrina150mph On August 28, though, something extraordinary happened. My all-night vigil of blogging about Katrina’s rapid deepening into a Category Five behemoth, and the concomitantly deepening threat to the very existence of New Orleans and environs, earned the blog a strange new respect when morning broke. Suddenly I wasn’t just getting occasional Instalanches and links from other regulars; everyone started linking to my blog. While I napped, the Irish Trojan’s Blog was basically anointed by the blogosphere’s traffic tycoons as the go-to source for Katrina-related information. (It would ultimately be declared “the most frequently cited hurricane-related blog” on the Web.)

To wit: between 5am and 6am on Sunday the 28th, I received “just” 75 visits. (That was the last time I’d have a double-digit hourly total for the next two weeks.) By 7-8am, my hourly visit count was in the 300s. By 10-11am, it was in the 500s. By 6-7pm, the 700s. Between 9pm and 10pm, I received 1,278 visits — more than I’d gotten all day long two days earlier. In the days that followed, quadruple-digit hourly totals became commonplace. The record? 3,269 visits between 10am and 11am the next day, as Katrina’s eye was making its closest approach to New Orleans.

My daily total for Sunday the 28th was 11,811 visits. On Monday the 29th, landfall day, it was 31,139 (an hourly average of 1,297). The next day, Tuesday the 30th, I received 34,278 visits, still my highest daily total ever. Here’s a chart of the hourly traffic on those five days — the days that transformed my blog into an object of national discussion:


The unprecedented attention inspired me to keep going — I didn’t want to let down my legions of new readers by cutting back on updates. Besides, this was the biggest domestic weather story of my lifetime. So I continued to blog, and blog, and blog, basically putting my law-school life on hold for a week (the second week of my 2L year, as it happened) and adopting the mantle of full-time Hurricane Katrina blogger.

All of that might have been enough to put August 26, 2005 on my decade list as an honorable mention. What elevated it to the lofty perch of #6 is what happened next.

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My status as the blogosphere’s go-to Hurricane Katrina source got me some limited national attention outside the Interwebs, from a handful of local radio stations and blog-connected outlets like Hugh Hewitt’s national radio show, which had me on a couple of times. But things moved to a whole different level on Friday, September 2. That’s when I got a call from Andrew Adam Newman of the New York Times. He wanted to do an article about me and my blog.

Newman’s piece appeared in the NYT print edition on Monday, September 5. It was titled “A ‘Weather Nerd’ in Indiana Sent a Warning to the Mayor.” (It led to a rather amusing series of corrections, but that’s a different story.) Key quote:

One of the earliest and perhaps clearest alarms about Hurricane Katrina’s potential threat to New Orleans was sounded not by the Weather Channel or a government agency but by a self-described weather nerd sitting on a couch in Indiana with a laptop computer and a remote control. …

Mr. Loy’s [“unprecedented cataclysm” post] that Friday afternoon came three days before the hurricane struck and two days before the mayor of New Orleans, Ray C. Nagin, issued an evacuation order. Posts over the next several days, in aggregate, seem now like an eerie rewriting of the tale of Chicken Little, in which the sky does in fact fall.

As I pointed out in a retrospective post later that day:

[M]y early dire warnings that Katrina could destroy New Orleans do not suggest some sort of amazing predictive ability on my part, nor am I some hack who had a hunch and made a guess that just happened to come true. This was no fluke. I was basing my statements on solid, publicly available information — National Hurricane Center advisories, computer models, etc. — combined with a long-standing, well-justified apprehension about hurricane threats to New Orleans. I say “well-justified” because the catastrophic potential of a major hurricane striking the Big Easy had been widely known for many years. So when I saw Katrina turn southwestward last Thursday, I was immediately concerned, and when I saw the computer model predictions shift westward on Friday morning, I was downright alarmed. When the official National Hurricane Center track caught up with the computer models at 10:00 PM Friday, and the NHC declared the new, New Orleans-centered track a high-confidence forecast, I knew this was the gravest threat to New Orleans in my lifetime, and it was time to start seriously thinking about evacuations. This was Friday night, and what’s extraordinary isn’t that I saw the gravity of the threat, it’s that so many others seemingly didn’t. …

[Moreover,] [a]s horrible as the catastrophe has been, please realize that it actually could have been far worse. What occurred was not the long-feared “worst-case scenario,” which involved not a levee breach equalizing the water level in Lake Ponchartrain and “Lake New Orleans,” but rather a storm surge over-topping the levees and causing the water level in “Lake New Orleans,” hemmed in by the still-intact levees, to rise substantially higher than the water level in the lake. If the storm had wobbled a meteorologically insignificant 20 or 30 miles to the west, and/or had not weakened from a Category 5 to a Category 4 at the last minute, that scenario would have occurred, and instead of a slowly developing 10-20 foot flood, New Orleans would have suffered a rapidly developing 30-40 foot flood. (Jackson Square would have been underwater, whereas in the real-world scenario it remained high and dry.) The whole thing would have happened Monday morning, and at the same time as the city was rapidly and massively flooding, the devastating winds that demolished the Mississippi coastline would have been tearing New Orleans apart instead. All of those attics where people took shelter would have been either submerged or shattered to bits. The French Quarter would have been swamped, instead of mostly surviving the flood. Second-floor generators in hospitals might well have drowned. Bottom line, there would be a lot fewer refugees and a lot more corpses.

All of that explains my focus on the pre-storm failures (by Nagin et. al.), rather than the post-storm ones, which would have been largely irrelevant in a true worst-case scenario. And it’s all even truer in retrospect, given that post-storm analysis revealed Katrina was “only” a Category 3 when it made its closest approach to New Orleans, and brought only Category 1-strength winds to the city. As we now know, the levees should not have failed in such a storm, but they did not work as designed.

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In any event, despite my insistence that my blog warnings were nothing extraordinary, and that plenty of others (though not certain key government and MSM types) were saying the same thing, the New York Times article caught the eye of the rest of the MSM. A Brendan Loy media boomlet ensued, based on what I’ve described as the “why-did-this-nerd-see-it-coming-when-George-Bush-didn’t” meme. More newspapers and radio stations called. On two different occasions, I was scheduled to appear on Fox News, but both appearances were ultimately canceled for logistical reasons. However, two days after the Times article, I appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show on MSNBC:

That same day, the South Bend Tribune published an article about me, which was then picked up by the Associated Press. The AP article went ’round the world, and was published or summarized in such far-flung places as France’s Le Monde and newspapers or websites in Spain, Denmark, Norway and South Korea, as well as all over the United States. It also led to a new wave of phone calls from local radio and TV stations.

Thus, even as I, and pretty much every other 2L, was in the midst of the “OCI” (i.e., “On-Campus Interview”) season for law-firm jobs, I was also fielding media interviews left and right. A couple of times, I mentioned I had an “interview” that day, and my friends would tease me by asking which type of interview, law-related or blog-related. CNET News reported on the craziness of it all.

Gradually, things got a little less hectic, but I was getting media attention even into October, courtesy of The Washington Post, among others. And my Katrina coverage was praised by everyone from Mickey Kaus, who said my blog should be in the Smithsonian, “if you can put a blog in the Smithsonian,” to Michelle Malkin, who said I should get a Pulitzer, to GOP operative Patrick Ruffini, who wrote, “Brendan has made what is undoubtedly the greatest contribution to the blogosphere in its short history.” I’m thinking that was a bit of exaggeration, but I’ll take it. :)

Later, in early 2006, The Week magazine made me a nominee for its 2005 “Blogger of the Year,” and said I “became the definitive online source for information and commentary about the storm’s devastation and political failures it exposed—citizen journalism at its finest.” That was pretty cool.

And then Spike Lee called.

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Actually, it was his producer, Judith Aley, who first contacted me, sometime late in 2005. Spike, she said, wanted to interview me for his upcoming movie about Hurricane Katrina, which would ultimately be titled When the Levees Broke.

spikelee-meAfter some discussion — in which I made clear that I don’t buy into the more inflammatory, Kanye-esque interpretations of Katrina’s legacy, and Judith made clear that Spike understood where I was coming from and wanted to hear a variety of viewpoints, including mine — I agreed, and Spike Lee’s people flew me to New York for an interview on January 28.

On August 21, I made my motion-picture debut, as When the Levees Broke premiered on HBO.

As a consequence of this, I have an IMDB page. :) Oh yeah, and the whole Katrina mess also resulted in me having my own Wikipedia page (though I sometimes wish I didn’t).

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Anyway… I’ve gone on long enough, if not too long, in expounding the significance of August 26, 2005 to my decade. And again, I’m well aware that my personal Hurricane Katrina story is downright trivial when compared to the “defining days” experienced by the countless thousands of Americans whose lives were permanently changed by the storm. They suffered a horrible tragedy; I just got on TV and in some newspapers, and a bunch of people read my blog. Big deal. Needless to say, I wish the events leading to my “15 minutes of fame” had never happened. But, even so, I can’t deny the significance of those “minutes” to my life over the last 10 years.

My 15 minutes of fame are now over. The blog that started it all, Irish Trojan, is defunct, and my current blog,.The Living Room Times, gets far less traffic than Irish Trojan did, even pre-Katrina. And I’m fine with that. But certainly, the events of fall 2005 had a huge impact on my decade. And all of those events — the NYT article, the MSNBC interview, the Spike Lee movie appearance, all of it — flow directly from that 1:57 PM August 26 blog post (and the posts surrounding it), and from InstaPundit’s link to me that day. If not for my blogging on August 26, none of the subsequent media craziness would ever have happened. So it was certainly a defining day of my decade.

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Up next, hopefully later today: Defining Day #5.

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Comments on "My Defining Days of the Decade: #6"

24 Responses to “My Defining Days of the Decade: #6”

  1. ceiliazul Says:

    I first visited your blog in August 05. thanks for keeping your mind open and your keyboard busy.

  2. Jazz Says:

    Sort of interesting to revisit Katrina several years later, now in a struggling Democratic administration, where Republicans are reasserting themselves behind the rallying cry of teapartiers, Glenn Beck and others. Interesting in particular to consider the demographics of the people who came to the Irish Trojan from Instapundit to read updates on the storm.

    The average Instapundit/Irish Trojan reader, exhorted to “Get the Hell Out” based on a 10% chance of calamity, would almost certainly do exactly that. They would drive several hours to safety, spend a couple hundred bucks at a modest hotel, and return when the danger passed. I suspect the 1200 dead from Katrina in New Orleans, and the many thousand others who had a close call in the Superdome or Convention Center, are not like the average Irish Trojan/Instapundit reader in their capacity to get the hell out now.

    For the large (and increasing) number of Americans on the dole, one way or another, getting the hell out now is a lot more onerous than it would be for yours or my family. This was revealed three years later when Gustav made a similar threat and very few folks got the hell out then, as getting the hell out was so onerous (and they got lucky with Gustav).

    Back in 2005 the Irish Trojan was filled with debate about whether Mayor Nagin or Governor Blanco or President Bush was mostly to blame; as I recall the views largely broke on party lines. In hindsight, and even with a problem election for the Democrats looming, it seems obvious that the blame has to fall primarily on Bush, FEMA and “heckuva job” Brownie.

    This is because the existence of the vast and expanding welfare state effectively puts the onus for disaster management on the vast power-collecting central government that runs such an entitlement state. I suspect that many non-partisan Americans would agree that the maintenance of a powerful, centralized, growing, “dole-doling” bureaucracy imposes a moral obligation on that same bureaucracy not to leave the recipients at the mercy of whatever local shithead is electred mayor or governor. If the mayor or governor can’t handle it, then the national guys need to boot them in the ass and take over immediately.

    If the national guys don’t want to take over immediately, then they should disavow the vast centralized power that comes from entitlement creep.

    In summary, while the Republicans will probably do well in the 2010 elections, and may even take back the White House in 2012, their winning candidate will no doubt be someone who, irrespective of rhetoric, likes the vast and centralizing power of entitlement creep – and perhaps gives you people like Mike Brown at FEMA as a thank you.

    Which is why – in conclusion – the long-term prospects for conservative governance in America look pretty dim.

  3. Brendan Loy Says:

    But there were evacuation plans in place, designed in coordination between the feds and the locals, intended specifically to deal with the type of folks you mention. The fact that many thousands of New Orleansians couldn’t “get the hell out,” without assistance, isn’t a previously unknown fact that was only discovered after Katrina or Gustav or whatever — it was, on the contrary, specifically anticipated in that 2002 Times-Picayune article (and the study it was based on), and was directly related to those 25,000 to 100,000 worst-case scenario predictions.

    The evacuation plans, put in place in response to such studies and warnings, could have been implemented. Could have, and should have. (If Katrina, as of Saturday/Sunday, didn’t justify their implementation, then no storm ever could.) But those evacuation plans would have required, among other things, swift and decisive action 48-72 hours before the storm, not 24 hours before. Because such action was delayed so long, the only viable option was the Superdome. (I use “viable” loosely.)

    The broader philosophical question that you pose is interesting, but to me, the core operative fact in this particular instance remains the absolute criminal incompetence of one Ray Nagin, who claims, purportedly in his own defense (!!), that — somehow — he didn’t even know until late Saturday night whether he had the legal authority to order a mandatory evacuation of his below-sea-level, hurricane-prone, most-vulnerable-in-the-nation city. I mean, Jesus H. Christ. And they re-elected the asshat!!

  4. David K. Says:


    Nagin, Blanco AND Bush were to blame.

    Nagin (and potentially Blanco) for the pre-Hurricane failures.
    Bush, Blanco, and to a lesser extent, Nagin, for the post-Hurricane failures.

    I believe the technical term for what occured was clusterfuck.

  5. Jazz Says:

    As Brendan mentions, Nagin won re-election in 2006, which could be a sign of the insanity of the remaining residents in NOLA. While I personally think the masses are often insane, I tend to believe that election results more or less represent individuals voting their interests.

    If the 2006 NOLA mayoral election indeed represents individuals voting their interests, that would suggest that the citizens do not feel that Nagin is primarily responsible for their Katrina-related miseries. They could be wrong about this. At least indirectly, the willingness of a large chunk of the NOLA citizenry to re-elect Nagin may suggest that in the era of entitlements, people tend to believe that the gigantic federal government is there to solve gigantic problems. YMMV.

  6. Brendan Loy Says:

    People do not understand counterfactuals. This is true across all strata of society. People understand arguments based on what happened; they do not understand arguments based on what could have happened, particularly when what could have happened is worse than what happened. (Don’t believe me? Just ask the Democrats, who are faced with the daunting prospect of telling voters next year that unemployment would be 13% instead of 10%, and we’d have suffered an absolute financial collapse instead of a mere financial clusterf**k, if not for the stimulus and bailouts, respectively.) And a full recognition of Nagin’s glaring criminal incompetence and failures of leadership in the run-up to Hurricane Katrina requires an understanding of the fact that Katrina could easily have been far, far worse — orders of magnitude worse — for the city of New Orleans. Approximately 0.001% of the population understands this key fact.

    It is utterly impractical to task the federal government with deciding which cities, counties, parishes, hamlets, neighborhoods and city blocks to evacuate, and which not to. If that isn’t the province of the local government, then nothing is the province of the local government. The pre-storm evacuation failures fall squarely on the shoulders of the local, and to some extent perhaps the state, governments. To the extent the voters fail to recognize this, the voters are wrong.

  7. Jazz Says:

    As you certainly know, Mayor Nagin’s decision not to evacuate (to the extent it was actually a decision) was certainly proven correct given the scenario you feared when you wrote get the hell out now. The dreaded storm surge didn’t occur; had the levees done their job virtually no one in New Orleans would have died from Katrina.

    You can lay criminal incompetence at Nagin for not maintaining the levees; one gets the sense (from Spike Lee’s film among other sources) that Nagin was hardly alone in such neglect. Indeed, as a voter in NOLA, I am not sure that I could even cast a ballot for mayor of New Orleans for the “candidate I believe will shore up and upgrade the levees”. Such a species likely doesn’t exist.

    With regard to evacuating, if I were in NOLA I would evacuate every single time a ~10% threat to my neighborhood occured. But my family is extremely blessed, I can imagine that many of the poor citizens of NOLA – in scope of the flood – are not so fortunate. For them evacuation brings costs of looting, lack of personal safety, expense of travel, etc., all of which could be great enough to drive them over the edge into homelessness and despair. If the 10% event is only going to happen once every 20 years, but a permanently crippling bout of homelessness is say – 40% – likely after the dislocations of the storm, is it rational to leave when warned? My numbers may be a bit skewed, but the point is that, for many people, the decision is not simply about the weather.

    Finally, in the era of entitlements, the bucks – all the bucks – stop at the Executive Branch. Sure, we’ll take care of our own block…but for something as vastly impactful as Katrina, its understandable that people would expect that the Federal Government – which has its hands in everything vastly impactful – would take care of it.

    P.S. Regarding counterfactuals – keep in mind that by their very nature they lack facts. 13% unemployment without the stimulus? Says who? Obama’s experts told me that there would be 8% unemployment with the stimulus, so if I apply roughly a 13/10 ratio (expected unemployment without/actual unemployment with) to the promised 8%, perhaps our 10.4% unemployment is basically what the Obama-economists envisioned when they pushed that massive stimulus.

    The biggest problem we have with counterfactuals is the lack of data and our love of emotion. Remember “zombie banks”? What a great term for those pushing vast government spending. It sounds all freaky. I’m way more banal than all that, for me, if there’s a demand for borrowing, I think someone’s gonna fulfill it, but I admit I am pretty frightened of zombies.

  8. Brendan Loy Says:

    Nagin has nothing to do with the levees. That failure falls purely at the feet of the feds, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s the single biggest federal failure of the whole Katrina calamity.

    But Nagin’s decision not to order a mandatory evacuation until 24 hours before the storm — and not to implement the long-planned evacuation plans for folks unable to get themselves the Hell out — was NOT “proven correct.” He merely got lucky. He won a game of Russian roulette. That doesn’t mean it was retrospectively wise to play. That’s the most asinine logic imaginable, and is Exhibit A for my argument about people’s inability to process counterfactuals.

    When you’re presented with the following menu of options — 1) do nothing, and there’s an 80% chance you’ll be okay, and a 20% chance tens of thousands of people will die, or 2) order a timely evacuation, and there’s an 80% chance it’ll prove retrospectively unnecessary, and a 20% chance you’ll save tens of thousands of lives — the correct answer is always, always Option 2, regardless of whether the 80% scenario is the one that actually comes to fruition, since you have NO WAY OF KNOWING THAT when you make the decision, and you therefore MUST plan for the worst.

  9. Jazz Says:

    If you order me to evacuate my neighborhood, on a 20% risk that I will die if I remain, and the evacuation carries with it a 40% chance of a life disruption from which I have little chance to recover, is it better to stay or go?

    Just playing devil’s advocate – it doesn’t seem as obvious as your assertions that the delayed evacuation order was necessarily insane. Indeed, in all likelihood many folks living at higher ground near the French Quarter had gotten the hell out in their SUVs when they saw that monster turn north in the Gulf. Many many of the 100,000 dead in a 20-foot storm surge would be Ninth Ward type residents, a disproportionate number of whom would suffer disproportionately from a false alarm.

    Therefore, if you’re sitting in Nagin’s office Thursday night, facing that 20% scenario, do you order the evacuation that is so onerous to the evacuees, knowing that the rich folk near the French Quarter are getting themselves out? He…probably should, and he probably shouldn’t have dithered. Its upsetting that politicians dither in the face of uncertainty when the polity’s well-being is at stake. Fortunately there’s a support group for such victims of dithering, its called everyone, and we meet in the bar downstairs every Wednesday after work.

  10. Brendan Loy Says:

    Your argument doesn’t make the delayed evacuation order non-insane. It might make individual residents’ decisions to ignore such an order, depending on their individual circumstances, non-insane, or at least less insane. But the failure by Mayor Nagin and his administration (as opposed to individual residents) to take the steps that were specifically prescribed by all the pre-storm plans for precisely such a scenario, knowing full well all the variables we’re discussing, is inexcusable, particularly when part of the asserted reason is something as absurd as “I didn’t know if I had the authority, I had to consult with my lawyers WHILE A CATEGORY FIVE HURRICANE WAS BEARING DOWN ON MY BELOW-SEA-LEVEL CITY.”

    It’s not Nagin’s job to make the 20%/40% calculus you’re discussing for the individual residents of the Ninth Ward. It’s his job to give those residents every opportunity to get themselves the Hell out, while recognizing that he can’t literally force them to do so. This means being totally straightforward and not at all dithering or wavering in his response — like it or not, many people read “voluntary evacuation” as code for “not really a big deal, I can stay” (there were clear examples of this in the run-up to Katrina that Saturday) — and which also means actually providing the long-planned evacuation resources that enable them to heed the order if they so choose (not just “we’ll bus you to the Superdome, and may God have mercy on your soul”). And if the residents choose to defy the order, whether because of your 20%/40% or for whatever other reason, he needs to explain clearly that, for purely pragmatic reasons, they may not have any help from the government for a number of days after the storm, which is precisely why the order is “mandatory” — nobody’s going to drag them from their homes, but if they choose to stay, they need to know damn well that they’re very explicitly on their own, and the “damn cavalry” isn’t coming anytime soon, because their city is about to be underwater.

  11. Brendan Loy Says:

    *Technically, Katrina wasn’t Category 5 until early Sunday morning, but it was clear all day Saturday that it had an excellent chance of becoming Category 5 on Sunday, and by Saturday night, it was well into the process of intensifying into a Cat. 5.

  12. Jazz Says:

    At T-72 hours, Katrina was just west of the Florida Keys, with a forecast track that took it just east of Lake Pontchartrain. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if the Army Corps is doing its job, the bowl will only be filled if a Cat 4/5 makes landfall with Lake Pontchartrain in the front right quadrant. As of Friday evening, Lake Pontchartrain was in the front left quadrant in the most likely outcome.

    I’m not much of a weather buff – but I know a bit about statistics, and if I infer that landfall anywhere from the Texas border to halfway down the Florida panhandle was “plausible”, it simply doesn’t add up that there was a 20% chance of a doomsday scenario on Friday night. If that were true, there must also have been a 20% chance of something like a Mobile, Alabama landing, and then there must have been a greater – call it 40% – chance of the expected landing…leaving little probability for the Texas/Florida scenarios, and raising the question of why these weather folks even extend the cone out that far.

    Assuming 80% or so of outcomes are represented by the cone of uncertainty, with the forecast track being the most likely, it is simply hard to imagine that the probability of a doomsday scenario was anywhere near as high as 20% on Friday night. The probability must have been much much lower than 20%, probably lower even than 10%, which makes the relative salience of the disruption from a false alarm that much greater.

    Finally, I thoroughly agree that public officials ought to avail the citizenry of established opportunities to protect themselves and leave it to the citizens to comply as their sense prevails. But then I am pretty much a right-winger and am nervous about all this government intervention in our lives. So while I would like Nagin to have behaved in the right-wing friendly fashion you mention, I would also like Congress to reign in entitlement spending, and people to take responsibility for their lives, and Santa not to doze off while my daughter tells him what she wants for Christmas, and…basically, I won’t reserve too much hostility at Nagin for sucking as much as everyone else sucks.

  13. Brendan Loy Says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if the Army Corps is doing its job, the bowl will only be filled if a Cat 4/5 makes landfall with Lake Pontchartrain in the front right quadrant.

    You’re wrong. :) Cue that 2002 article:

    “The worst case is a hurricane moving in from due south of the city,” said Suhayda, who has developed a computer simulation of the flooding from such a storm. On that track, winds on the outer edges of a huge storm system would be pushing water in Breton Sound and west of the Chandeleur Islands into the St. Bernard marshes and then Lake Pontchartrain for two days before landfall.

    “Water is literally pumped into Lake Pontchartrain,” Suhayda said. “It will try to flow through any gaps, and that means the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (which is connected to Breton Sound by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet) and the Chef Menteur and the Rigolets passes.

    “So now the lake is 5 to 8 feet higher than normal, and we’re talking about a lake that’s only 15 or 20 feet deep, so you’re adding a third to a half as much water to the lake,” Suhayda said. As the eye of the hurricane moves north, next to New Orleans but just to the east, the winds over the lake switch around to come from the north.

    “As the eye impacts the Mississippi coastline, the winds are now blowing south across the lake, maybe at 50, 80, 100 mph, and all that water starts to move south,” he said. “It’s moving like a big army advancing toward the lake’s hurricane-protection system. And then the winds themselves are generating waves, 5 to 10 feet high, on top of all that water. They’ll be breaking and crashing along the sea wall.”

    Soon waves will start breaking over the levee.

    “All of a sudden you’ll start seeing flowing water. It’ll look like a weir, water just pouring over the top,” Suhayda said. The water will flood the lakefront, filling up low-lying areas first, and continue its march south toward the river. There would be no stopping or slowing it; pumping systems would be overwhelmed and submerged in a matter of hours.

    Suhayda added: “Another scenario is that some part of the levee would fail.” So it’s not like that possibility wasn’t anticipated. But leaving that aside, the “worst-case scenario” for New Orleans looked, well, an awful lot like the NHC’s “high-confidence forecast” as of Friday night at 11pm EDT. A forecast which, incidentally, was just about exactly right. The three things that made the reality non-worst-case were, as I understand it: 1) for it to be truly “worst-case,” the storm needed to not weaken from an almost annular-looking Category 5 to a highly asymmetrical Category 3 at the last possible moment; 2) the track needed to come in from “due south” maybe 20 or 30 miles further west (a meteorologically insignificant deviation that can’t be predicted with any degree of confidence even 6 hours out, let alone 48 or 72); and 3) ironically, the levees needed to not fail, at least not right away. The worst-case scenario, as I understand it, was premised on the levees remaining intact, and thus hemming in the water for an extended period of time at a level close to the highest storm surge, not normal sea/lake level.

    Having said all that, you’re correct: there wasn’t a 20% chance of the worst-case scenario as of Friday night. It was perhaps a bit under 10% at that point, and reached 10% by Saturday morning. The odds didn’t rise to 20% until Saturday night. But, then again, Nagin still waited another 12 hours after Saturday night to make the evacuation mandatory, which delay reduced the remaining evacuation window, post-order, from roughly 36 hours to roughly 24 hours, the last 12+ of which are unusable because the storm’s effects are already being felt. So I think my point stands.

  14. Brendan Loy Says:

    More broadly, the bottom line is this, as I’ve always said: the experts, back in 2002, said it would take 48-72 hours to effectively evacuate New Orleans, including dealing with the many folks who were unable to leave on their own. With Katrina, at 60 hours before landfall, the forecast was almost literally as close as it could possibly be to a worst-case scenario at 48-72 hours out. Sure, it was off by maybe 20 or 30 miles from absolute worst-case, and as it turned out, those 20 or 30 miles (along with last-minute weakening) are what saved New Orleans. But 20 or 30 miles at 60 hours out is like 537 votes out of 6 million in Florida. It’s a statistically insignificant deviation. We’re talking about the width of a last-minute trochoidal wobble. (Moreover, it wasn’t at all clear, in advance, that catastrophic overtopping wouldn’t still occur, even with those 20-30 miles.) So, the threat to New Orleans, as of Friday night, would not have been meaningfully greater if that forecast track “line” had been 20 or 30 miles further to the west. And yet a mandatory evacuation order wasn’t issued for another 36 hours. This suggests strongly that, based upon the mentality of the Nagin Administration on August 26, 2005, a mandatory evacuation order would never be issued at 48-72 hours out, because it is basically impossible to dream up a 48-to-72-hour forecast scenario that is more threatening to their city, by a statistically/meteorologically significant amount, than the one they faced that Friday night. Yet the unwillingness to issue such an order, in such a time frame, under any circumstances (apparently), seemingly flies in the face of everything the experts said about the risk to New Orleans and the steps needed to mitigate it. Hence my contention that Nagin’s actions, or rather inactions, were and are indefensible.

  15. Jazz Says:

    Thanks for clarifying the worst-case scenario – that was pretty interesting, and I wasn’t aware of all that. I totally take your point about “when would a mayor order an evacuation?” – this is a major challenge of the looming Cat 5 monster, IMHO. If the odds of cataclysm are never greater than 10% at +72 hours, that fact may present real challenges for safely evacuating dole recipients who have so much at risk for leaving town. Its a maddening problem, exacerbated by politicians so often being who we think they are (ditherers).

    For everyone else – keep this in mind the next time Joe Mama or Gahrie or someone is reduced to defending Sarah Palin or some other weak, Glenn-Beck-endorsed Republican candidate: there’s a real benefit to a more individually responsible, Republican-type mentality in our country, and this difficult scenario is just one of many that illustrate the reasons why.

  16. Brendan Loy Says:

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify — it’d been quite a while since I’d read that article, and I’d forgotten some of the worst-case-scenario details myself!

  17. Brendan Loy Says:

    By the way, if you think that’s bad, just consider the challenge facing the President of the United States who is someday given the news that seismic sensors on the Canary Islands indicate that, sometime in the next 2-4 weeks, volcanic activity could cause a catastrophic landslide that would instantly create a 100-foot Atlantic Ocean mega-tsunami that would wipe out every major East Coast city and kill millions of people, with 6-8 hours’ warning, and the only possible way to save all those lives is to evacuate the entire East Coast immediately (since you obviously can’t do that in 6-8 hours). Oh yeah, and by the way, there’s a 95% chance it won’t actually happen at all (this time), but the odds will never rise above 5% until the landslide happens and it’s too late to evacuate the coast.

  18. Brendan Loy Says:

    (I made up the 95%/5% numbers, but they convey the general reality as I understand it.)

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