By Brendan Loy
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
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 — but 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, what 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
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.
Up next, hopefully later today: Defining Day #5.
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