One year ago this night, with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on Louisiana and Mississippi, I was blogging like crazy all night long, and getting 800 hits per hour (a rate which would peak at over 3,000 later in the day, leading to a unprecedented daily total of 31,139 — surpassed the following day by the record that still stands, 34,278). If interested, you can view my posts from that fateful night by going to Page 27 of my Katrina category and working backwards. [UPDATE: Or you can go to my August 29, 2005 page, scroll down to the bottom, and then work your way up. That’s much more efficient, actually.]
Particularly compelling, I think, is the 2:25 AM post “SchrodingerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s City,” quoting N.O. Pundit: “There is a SchrodingerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Cat quality to watching the spinning red ball: does the New Orleans that I know even exist right now, hours before landfall? Surely the buildings are there right now and the people who remained are fine right now. But in a sense, some of those buildings have already fallen and some of those people have already met tragedy. Indeterminacy tonight, determinacy tomorrow.”
In point of fact, “determinacy” was slow to come, and it wasn’t until early Tuesday morning that we got any sense of how bad things were really going to get in the Crescent City. (And some folks still don’t have a good sense of how much worse things almost were, but that’s another issue, to be discussed a bit more after the jump.)
Anyway… if anyone came here expecting some sort of massive, wide-ranging, profound, overarching Katrina anniversary roundup, I’m afraid this post will disappoint. I simply haven’t had time — what with the demands of moving across the country, starting school, living life, and blogging about the current tropical threat — to really collect my thoughts about Hurricane Katrina and come up with some grand anniversary post. Besides, there’s no way I could match the excellent job Margie Kieper is doing with her series on the “Invisible Coastline.”
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t link to this post by Paul at Wizbang, which was Instalanched yesterday evening (and which several readers have subsequently pointed me to). Paul posts, and extensively analyzes, a video of the main broken levee which he says proves the fascinating, mind-bending hypothesis that Katrina actually saved lives:
New Orleans was doomed with or without Katrina, we just didn’t know it. A good high tide puts more water in the canal than this. As the video shows, the water was barely higher than normal levels. The walls could have failed on a decent high tide.
From the looks of the video the fact the wall failed when Katrina was approaching was really coincidence. Yes, Katrina was the “final straw” but so could any winds from the southeast. Or any given winter storm. (we often get winds out the south that “stack” the lake far higher than this.) Indeed these same walls held much higher surges in the past; that is, before they were undermined by seeping water for a year. …
What I will say next will probably completely throw you. Katrina saved probably over 50,000 lives.
That levee was doomed. If it had failed without notice, the death toll would have been measured in tens of thousands. There would be no evacuation, no preparation, no Feds at all. (such that they were anyway) no Coast Guard in choppers etc. Tens of thousands of people would have been dead in hours and tens of thousands more would have died on 120 degree rooftops waiting for rescue. It would have been unimaginable. - More unimaginable.
“Luckily” -and I groan when I say that- Katrina allowed the city to be evacuated.
I’ve said it for months. Katrina didn’t flood New Orleans. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A bit of background: it was Paul at Wizbang, back in 2004, whose appeal for prayers as Hurricane Ivan approached first alerted me to the true extent of the peril that New Orleans faced. So it’s not like he’s some fly-by-night pundit who doesn’t know anything about the levees or the inherent threat to his city that has always existed from a major hurricane. On the contrary, Wizbang has an extensive archive of Katrina-related posts. Paul knows of what he speaks.
Of the video, Paul says: “I routinely mock conspiracy theorists but I have trouble understanding why this tape was withheld for months. … [I]f this tape had been released in the weeks after the storm, the media coverage -and the scrutiny of Congress- would have been vastly different. … I’ll go to my grave believing that Congress withheld this tape intentionally. It was too damning.”
So, that’s one required-reading Katrina-related article. Here’s another, which I was remiss in not linking when it made the blogospheric rounds back in May. It’s the largely untold story of “What the Media Missed,” specifically the overwhelmingly successful rescue efforts by the National Guard in the storm’s immediate aftermath. Escerpt:
Do you remember the dramatic TV footage of National Guard helicopters landing at the Superdome as soon as Katrina passed, dropping off tens of thousands saved from certain death? The corpsmen running with stretchers, in an echo of M*A*S*H, carrying the survivors to ambulances and the medical center? About how the operation, which also included the Coast Guard, regular military units, and local first responders, continued for more than a week?
Me neither. Except that it did happen, and got at best an occasional, parenthetical mention in the national media. …
From the Dome, the Louisiana Guard’s main command ran at least 2,500 troops who rode out the storm inside the city, a dozen emergency shelters, 200-plus boats, dozens of high-water vehicles, 150 helicopters, and a triage and medical center that handled up to 5,000 patients (and delivered 7 babies). The Guard command headquarters also coordinated efforts of the police, firefighters and scores of volunteers after the storm knocked out local radio, as well as other regular military and other state Guard units.
Jack Harrison, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia, cited “10,244 sorties flown, 88,181 passengers moved, 18,834 cargo tons hauled, 17,411 saves” by air. Unlike the politicians, they had a working chain of command that commandeered more relief aid from other Guard units outside the state. From day one. …
[B]y focusing on the part of the glass that was half-empty, the national media imposed a near total blackout on the nerve center of what may have been the largest, most successful aerial search and rescue operation in history.
“The Coast Guard, the National Guard, the military in general performed heroically,” said Sen. Robert Barham, R-Oak Ridge, who monitored the Superdome operation from Baton Rouge as head of the Louisiana State Senate’s Homeland Security Committee. His opposite number in the Louisiana House, Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said, “They (the Guard) did a yeoman’s job.” Both said they were getting very different pictures from TV than they got from the Guardsmen at the Dome, and the state fish and wildlife department, another key player in the rescue operation.
“TV of the Superdome was perplexing to most folks,” Thompson said. “You had them playing the tapes of the same incidents over and over, it tends to bias your thinking some, you tend to think it’s worse than it really is.” Official estimates at this point suggest the Guard, working from the Dome, saved 17,000 by air and uncounted thousands more by boat.
Let’s try that again: The cavalry wasn’t late. It didn’t arrive on Thursday smoking a cigar and cussing. It was there all along.
Read the whole thing, which is important because of its discussion of the initial rescue operation’s widely underappreciated success, but also because it gives us a rough number of people who were saved: 50,000 or more. That number, in turn, gives us an idea of the number of people who very probably would have died if Katrina hadn’t, one year ago this very hour, unexpectedly weakened drastically, and, a few hours later, wobbled just far enough east to spare the city its worst. The people who were saved by the National Guard & co. wouldn’t have been there to save, if Katrina had been just a bit worse.
I have to put a caveat here. Ironically, the strucutral weakness of the levees means that the true “worst-scase scenario” wasn’t actually realistic, since it involved — in my words — “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.” Given what we know now, I think it’s safe to say that there’s no way would the levees have remained intact, so even if Katrina had hit New Orleans directly as a major hurricane, the water wouldn’t have been “hemmed in.” Just as an inadequately secured cockpit door would become an asset if the pilots were terrorists, New Orleans’s inadequately built levees would have become an asset if overtopping had occurred.
But despite that caveat, the fact remains that Katrina could have been much, much worse, and most of those 50,000+ people still would have died in the event of a more direct, ferocious hit. The water didn’t need to rise higher than the storm surge (as it would have in the “hemmed in” scenario) to flood all of those Ninth Ward houses well past their rooftops; the surge itself would have been plenty sufficient. Remember how high, and fast, the water rose in Mississippi? As I wrote here:
Good Lord, imagine how much worse it would have been, if the track had been just slightly different, bringing the winds and surge that hit Mississippi over New Orleans. … You think those predictions of 100,000 dead were exaggerated? Think again, buster. It almost happened.
Maybe not 100,000, but certainly in the vicinity of 50,000, if the article about the Guard is accurate. And maybe more. If Katrina had stayed at (or remotely near) her peak and had hit New Orleans head-on, the storm surge still would have caused the water to rise higher, faster, and the winds still would have been much stronger, which means much of the rest of my analysis remains true:
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, …instead of a slowly developing 10-20 foot flood, New Orleans would have suffered a rapidly developing 30-40 foot flood. … 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. … Bottom line, there would be a lot fewer refugees and a lot more corpses.
Important facts to remember on this day, as we mourn the victims of Hurricane Katrina, assess the storm’s toll, and look ahead to the future — which will inevitably someday feature a storm that more closely resembles the monster that Katrina almost was.
P.S. Here’s another post — written a year ago today, before the extent of the levee breaches became clear, but still applicable now — which makes the same point:
There are two reasons New Orleans was not destroyed (but merely devastated), two reasons this was not an apocalyptic lost-city-of-Atlantis scenario (but merely a really bad flood). Those reasons are: 1) a last-minute northward turn, and 2) a last-minute sudden weakening the likes of which I have rarely seen before. (Yes, several recent hurricanes have weakened as they approached the Gulf coast, but this one really weakened FAST, particularly the left-hand side of the eyewall. And look at all the damage it still did!!) I watched both things happen in the wee hours of this morning, and believe me, neither of them were pre-ordained to happen. Both of them happened in the final 6-9 hours before landfall, and if either one of them had not happened, we’d be looking at a very different situation right now. We wouldn’t be rescuing people from their rooftops because the rooftops would be submerged, along with the rest of the city up to 20-30 feet. This is not a hypothetical scenario. IT ALMOST HAPPENED.