Katrina, Ten Years Later

The editors of the Wall Street Journal commemorate the tenth anniversary of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans:

Hurricane Katrina was a disaster of nature and of government, and President Obama and George W. Bush—who are in New Orleans this week to observe the storm’s tenth anniversary—would probably disagree on which force deserves more blame. Our view is that while nature’s fury is eternal, the Gulf Coast’s remarkable recovery shows that government can change, and better outcomes are possible with the right reforms.

So far, so good. I take exception with their next paragraph:

Katrina was the most ruinous natural disaster in American history, and still its scale manages to astonish. The Category-3 storm at landfall featured winds as high as 145 miles an hour and was fronted by a surge of water as high as 27 feet that breached the levees of New Orleans. Roughly 80% of this city below sea level was flooded, and the larger damage was spread over nearly 93,000 square miles in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, an area the size of the United Kingdom.

which is misleading in parts and in others just plain wrong. I’ll put my criticisms into the form of questions.

Was the devastation in New Orleans a natural disaster?

The jury is still out on this question. Yes, the hurricane was natural. But by most accounts it was no longer a Category 3 storm when it reached New Orleans and the evidence is mounting that the actual culprit was the Army Corps of Engineers:

That the catastrophic flooding of this city was caused not merely by a powerful storm but primarily by fatal engineering flaws in the city’s flood protection system has been proved by experts, acknowledged by the United States Army Corps of Engineers and underscored by residents here to anyone who might suggest otherwise.

Did Hurricane Katrina make landfall as a Category 3 storm?

Hurricane Katrina first made landfall as a Category 1 storm in Florida. It then went back out to sea, gained strength, and when it made landfall again in Mississippi and adjacent Louisiana it was a Category 3 storm. By the time it reached New Orleans is had probably fallen below Category 3 intensity.

Was Katrina the most ruinous disaster in American history

Not by a long shot. There have been any number of more ruinous natural catastrophes in American history. Many more people died in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the Johnstown Flood of 1889, or the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The real damage from the San Francisco earthquake was at least $8 trillion (in today’s dollars). The real damage from the Chicago Fire (it is unknown whether the Chicago Fire was a manmade or a natural disaster) was at least $4 trillion. Katrina’s damage is estimated at around $150 billion.

The area of devastation of the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811 was more than twice as large as Katrina’s.

Katrina did have the greatest damage in nominal dollars of any natural disaster in American history (nominal dollars is a lousy yardstick) and it was undoubtedly the most publicized natural disaster in American history. The speed with which the hurricane was turned into a club to beat over the head of the Bush Administration was pretty darned impressive.

I’m not trying to diminish it. Yes, it was a disaster. However, it was definitely not the most ruinous which emphasizes the human failure in the aftermath of the earthquake even more.

Ten Years Later

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina I posted a lot about it and I’m proud of what I wrote.

In this post I suggested that we might think about our strategy on military base closure taking natural disasters into account.

In this post I wrote about the rush to assign blame too narrowly.

I consider this post, “Learning from history: the relief and rebuilding of New Orleans”, one of my best. The cities I mention in the post—San Francisco, Galveston, and Chicago—had all re-built themselves completely within five years of the disaster. Below, courtesy of Google Maps, is a satellite photo of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I encourage you to go to the link and zoom in. There are signs of life here and there but New Orleans has not been re-built.

16 comments… add one
  • TastyBits Link

    For the 17th Street floodwalls, a more proper term would be engineering disaster. It occurred because the walls were not built to the correct design specifications.

    The footings for the walls did not go deep enough because the soil samples were not interpreted correctly. At the depth they were sunk, the soil was compacted organic matter (trees, leaves, moss, etc.), and it was not sturdy enough to keep the walls in place at the water pressure of a Cat. 3 hurricane or a probable Cat. 1.

    In a sense, the government was already being held accountable by anybody who was willing to do so. The flood insurance program would pay for damages caused by the failure of the flood control system. The people who refused to participate should be offered the service of having their home torn down for free but not a penny more.

    My house was flooded because the idiot Parish (County) President evacuated the pump operators with the other non-essential government personnel, and by the time they got back, my house had a foot of water. That was a man-made disaster, but I am not getting anything from him or the government.

    If the government is held accountable for every infrastructure disaster, the simple solution is for the government to stop building infrastructure.

    (I will note that I missed the cries for NYC to be moved to a safer location after hurricane Sandy. Republicans know when to keep their mouths shut.)

    In my opinion, New Orleans has never recovered, and it is worse. There are a lot of little things that may seem silly to outsiders, but New Orleans is New Orleans because in the non-tourist areas things change slowly – geological time slowly. The school system has been upended. There is a no smoking in bars ordinance. There is a crack down on new and old ordinances affecting the local entertainment venues and entertainers (both formal and informal). The street traffic lights are now sideways.

    When the city was evacuated, the poor black people were kept out by the rich white people (liberals) to the extent they could, and they now run the place. It is being turned into the Omaha of the South. For the tourists, it is Acapulco without the Mexicans, but for everybody else, it is a fascist nightmare.

    I digress, but I hate those f*ckers. Large portions of the city remain unrebuilt, and because the lost tax base, the city cannot support the previous level of services. The problem is that there is still the same amount of area to cover. The police, fire, water, sewer, streets, etc. must be maintained throughout all the sparsely or unpopulated areas, and every street intersection needs a sideways traffic light.

    (The poles are some weird color also. They could at least have kept the same color. Did I mention I hate those f*ckers?)

  • ... Link

    SF and Chicago were both booming cities before and after their natural disasters, and I imagine Galveston was to an extent. (I seem to recall that as a result of the hurricane, though, that future interests were more interested in building inland.)

    New Orleans, on the other hand, was hard scrabble before Katrina, and I doubt there has been much interest in rebuilding it. It’s far more Detroit 2015 than Chicago 1871.

  • steve Link

    To your list of causes I would add the subsidence and loss of wetlands secondary to the oil and gas industry.


  • PD Shaw Link

    I would not rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. I do not think whatever guarantees Corps Engineers promise can hold (back) water. The land is sinking; the sea is rising. Trying to maintain Category 3 levees is difficult and expensive enough, but won’t help with Category 4 or 5. And its not just the levees, it’s the pumps. A slow-moving Category 1 storm will flood the city, as will weeks of rain. If the “bowl” fills, IIRC it takes two weeks to empty if the pumps are working as they should. And its not just about levees and pumps, because the Corps figured out these were insufficient, so they built floodways to blow up the river to protect New Orleans.

    The lower 9th is a poor appendage to the city that is separated by a shipping canal and thus is protected by a separate levy and pump system which makes little economic sense.

  • TastyBits Link

    The problem with the wetlands is that they are not being allowed to be refurbished, and this is due to man-made structures – levees mostly. Almost every year for thousands (or a really long time), the Mississippi River used to flood the surrounding areas. The rich soil from the mountains and upperlands flowed south and built up the Mississippi Delta of rich farmland.

    The river changed course over time, and the time span was human time – decades or centuries. The river has been trying to move the mouth west about 50 – 100 miles. (if I recall the distance correctly.) This would replenish much of the coastal area, but the levees also block the coastal areas. During the really high years, some of the water would get to the coastal areas, and the soil it carried would be deposited.

    The canals dug by the oil and gas companies do not help, but with natural river overflow, they would have been quickly filled. The levees and gates holding back the river will eventually fail. You cannot outsmart or outlast nature. With levees being built along more and more of the river, the river is becoming faster, and it does not replenish the surrounding areas with fertile soil.

    Humans are funny creatures. They cannot read soil samples correctly or build a floodwall to specifications, but they are going to counteract the effect of the wobble of the Earth’s axis and stop the ice age cycle. I would suggest starting small. How about building pipelines from the river to the wetlands to start refurbishing them? How about diverting some of the river water into the depleting aquifers or build storage systems?

  • You raise a good point, PD. We know how to expand cities but we haven’t cultivated the ability to shrink them. Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis are all half the size (or less) they were at their peaks. Chicago isn’t in that advanced state of decay but it’s about a third smaller than it was at its peak. Boston and Philadelphia have both declined in size.

    While city revenues are proportional to populations, city expenses at best are proportional both to population and size. As mentioned above, you’ve got to light streets that have only one resident and you’ve got to provide police and fire services to it.

    Not only are populations moving south and west, they’re concentrating. The issues I’ve mentioned for large Midwestern cities are present in spades in smaller towns throughout the countryside.

  • jan Link

    While Bush and his FEMA director, “Brownie,” took major heat for the Katrina disaster, it seems that most of the inept management and late calls to evacuate and then secure the city were at the city and state levels — mainly Roy Nagin and Katherine Blanco.

    As a comparison and contrast the mistakes were lessened in the Sandy storm, as the mayors and governors of the areas effected were proactively involved before the storm hit. There still was a lot of damage. But it could have been much worst, if the same New Orleans formula had been followed.

  • TastyBits Link


    Evacuating for a hurricane is expensive, and during an active season, there can be two major storms that need evacuations. In order to evacuate the area, the evacuation needs to start at least 48 hrs before the first effects begin being felt or sooner. I believe the evacuations need to begin about the time the storm hits the Gulf of Mexico, but it depends on what it is doing.

    You can usually count on about four days of hotel and eating out plus lost wages. If your car is not very reliable, you may break down in the traffic. If you have pets, they are usually not allowed in shelters, and the shelters do not provide very much for you.

    If you are poor, evacuating is probably out of the question, and if you are working class, evacuating may be your summer vacation.

    Louisiana and Mississippi (somewhat) have gotten the traffic flows pretty well worked out, and it is not as bad as it used to be. The Houston evacuation some years ago was similar to the messes in New Orleans when people were trying to evacuate. It is not as easy as it looks.

    Katrina was a nothing storm. It should have been a nothing event, and it would have been. The problem was the floodwalls were not built to specifications. It was an engineering disaster. The problem with engineering disasters is that they can never be predicted. If they could be predicted, somebody would have engineered a solution.

    My house was flooded because the Parish President evacuated the pump operators. If he refused to let them run the pumps during a heavy rain, my house would flood. This was a preventable man-made disaster.

    The Louisiana National Guard had the situation under control. If you are interested in the real story, you can read the following link: Katrina: What the Media Missed. It is long, and there are a lot of good links. Unfortunately, you will understand too much to repeat the political narrative anymore. So if you prefer the narrative, do not learn the truth.

    The only reason NY and NJ evacuated everybody was because they did not want to get blamed if anything went wrong. I doubt they will be doing this again. It is expensive.

    Also, Mayor Ray Nagin was not black until after his Katrina performance. He was elected by whites, and among those were Republicans. He was a businessman, and that was part of his campaign. When the white voters turned against him, he turned black.

    As for the corruption, he was not part of any of the political organizations or one of the old families. He did not know how to take a little off the top and spread it around (Chicago style). He was greedy, and he was caught stealing instead of just skimming.

    (Ya see Johnny. They gots honest crooks and dishonest crooks, and the dishonest crooks ain’t got no friends to helps ’em when they gets nabbed.)

  • jan Link

    “….Unfortunately, you will understand too much to repeat the political narrative anymore. So if you prefer the narrative, do not learn the truth.”


    I read the linked article. Some of the content was already known to me, while other aspects were not. So, I appreciated your reference to it.

    The gist of the narrative confirmed that the President was exercising federal restraint until called in by the State’s governor for assistance.

    The president’s side isn’t a complicated story. He sits atop a huge bureaucratic machine. He’s responsible for how the pieces of the pyramid work, not every last detail. “The rescues happened way below the radar screen and that’s not bad,” Carafano said. “You want this kind of decentralized execution. If we have to sit around for someone in Washington to make a decision, we’re all going to die.”

    Unfortunately, such a detail doesn’t fit in with those intent on discrediting Bush at every turn of his administration.

    The governor’s role is what I found to be less inept than once thought, as she apparently was privy to the intense efforts going on before the media got their hands on the story.

    Governor Kathleen Blanco, meanwhile, had a direct pipeline to the command center and clearly knew what was going on, which might explain why she maintained her authority over the Guard and resisted calls from the President to federalize it. It also explains her apparent callousness to those stuck in the Dome – she knew the real situation was not as bad as the media was reporting. At the very least, she deserves credit for standing up to the national media and following the advice of the junior officers on the scene.

    The mayor’s role continues to be dubious at best, having nothing to do with his ethnicity — the relevance being in how adroitly he handled the evolving circumstances of this natural disaster.

    While I agree with you that evacuation is expensive, the backlash of not doing so is also expensive, especially when the events of a storm are underestimated by those making the call. It was also brought out in Lou Dolinar’s piece that successful rescues were based less on economic status but rather the age and vulnerability of a person. IOW, rescues were based on a level playing field of concerns, in his opinion, rather than giving priority to one advantaged group over a disadvantaged one.

    “The problem was the floodwalls were not built to specifications. It was an engineering disaster.”

    The age and disrepair of the levies was always front and center, even before the storm hit New Orleans. Any reassurance they would hold, seemed to be based more on crossing fingers than real confidence in such statements. As for the storm being a “nothing” — I remember it being hyped, like so many weather events are. The media tends to engage in “worst case scenarios,” ramping the public interest. In the case of Katrina, the flooding and distressful aftermath pictures fit the possibilities sketched out beforehand. So, they continued to run with it, emphasizing the “glass half empty part” while obscuring most of the rest. It’s called MSM bias at it’s best.

  • The age and disrepair of the levies was always front and center

    It’s much worse than that. The floodwalls weren’t built to spec. That’s completely on the ACoE.

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