Two Perspectives on Katrina

November 22nd, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Rick Anthes at UCAR, writes, “There can be little doubt that the failure of society and government on all levels contributed so much to this disaster that it can hardly be called an act of God.” See his essay on the storm here.

Roger Kennedy, historian and former director of the National Park Service, writes, “Post-Katrina policy is being muddled with too much vague talk of “natural disasters” and “acts of God.” Disasters are catastrophes affecting people.” See his essay on the storm in our Center’s Fall newsletter, Ogmius, available here.

One Response to “Two Perspectives on Katrina”

  1. Jim Clarke Says:

    Both authors make the very valid point that the Katrina disaster was the fault of people, not nature, but several statements were misleading.

    The disappearance of the coastal marshes is undoubted and the reason for it is well stated, particularly in Roger Kennedy’s article, but it did not have much to do with what happened in Katrina. Several years ago at the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans, the story of how New Orleans would be flooded by a hurricane was spelled out in in great deal by one of the presenters. Aside from the fact that it would take a major hurricane, the course of the storm was most important.

    It would have to approach from the south or southeast and have a large ‘footprint’. The east to southeast winds as the storm approached would push Gulf water into Lake Pontchartrain. Then the center of the storm would have to pass just east of the city, so that winds across the Lake would veer sharply and intensely from the north, driving the high Lake water south and southeast, over the levies and into the city.

    Had the center of Katrina passed right over the city, wind damage would have been worse, but the city would not likely have flooded. Fifty miles to the east and the winds would not likely have been strong enough to top the levies.

    It was the very precise track, size and intensity of Katrina, along with the geography of Lake Pontchartrain, that flooded the city. The loss of land in the Delta Region was not a factor. It is a very important issue, but preventing Katrina-like flooding would be a poor argument for delta restoration.

    Secondly, there seems to be a general consensus that the Federal Government really dropped the ball on Katrina. This implies that the Federal Government is responsible for hurricane mitigation. It is not and never has been, but will likely play a more active role now, resulting in an overall drop in hurricane preparedness (lessons learned from the centralized planning of the old Soviet Union).

    I have been preaching hurricane preparedness for 20 years in the state of Florida and never once have I told anyone that the Federal Government would be bringing relief in less than three days after a major hurricane. In fact, we told everyone that they would be totally on their own for at least three days before help even came from local government or the state. Only those who have never experienced such a disaster could expect instant relief.

    The storm hit on a Monday and as I went to sleep Monday night, the word from the media was that New Orleans was spared! The media, which I feel should be held directly responsible for their complete mishandling of the event, did not know of the growing breaches in the outlying neighborhoods. Instead of reporting only what they did know, they made sweeping statements that gave everyong a false sense of security.

    The city did not really flood until Tuesday and the Federal government was in the city and taking control on Friday – three days after the flood. That is precisely what one would expect if they had any knowledge of the history of relief efforts. Were mistakes made by the Federal Government? Of course there were. It was a disaster! Nothing in the region worked. Everything had to be brought in and set up, including a skeletal communication system. How could their not be mistakes and delays? Also, consider that the flooding of New Orleans is the worst case scenario for disaster relief efforts. No other location in the U.S. poses such a problem. Is it not reasonable to expect that when the worst case scenario happens that the relief efforts will not be as smooth or easy as any other scenario?

    If we wish to hold the Federal Government responsible for all hurricane mitigation, FEMA is going to have to get a lot bigger! Doesn’t it make more sense that states and counties would do a much better job at preparing for storms, as they would be more aware of their local needs and vulnerabilities? In Florida, we understand that we are responsible for mitigation of our hurricane vulnerability and know that FEMA’s role is to assist us as we see fit.

    I was shocked at the lack of responsibilty and decision making that occured before and after Katrina by the state and local governments.

    Finally, Roger Kennedy’s point that creating ‘unnatural’ landscapes is dangerous is well taken, but he ignores all the benefits that such risk-taking provides. No one could be so niave to think that living under the surrounding water level was a risk free environment, yet they choose to live there, believing the benefits were greater than the risk. Certainly some did not understand the magnatude of the risk, but most did. Now they all do, but many can’t wait to return and rebuild their lives there. I personally think it is a dumb idea and regret that we, as a nation, will actually pay people to put themselves back in harms way. Nonetheless, I look forward to the day when I can visit Bourbon Street again and sample the great food and music. That is human nature, and as much a part of the world as the Mississippi Delta itself.