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.