Hurricane Katrina

And then there was the fury of Katrina. The storm started as Tropical Depression #12 on August 23rd, 2005, but some forecasters said the storm really was part of Tropical Depression #10 which never really organized into a storm. No matter: the system quickly gained in strength and intensity; Katrina went from a tropical depression to a hurricane in just two and a half days. Also: Katrina was a unique storm from the start- not only did it form very close to land, but the storm originally moved south over Miami-Dade and into the Gulf of Mexico, an almost unheard of behavior for an Atlantic Basin hurricane.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the U.S. twice: on August 25th, 2005 the system skipped over Miami and the Florida Keys killing seven people and knocking out power to over a million others. When Katrina hit Miami-Dade, it was only a Category 1 storm. As it headed to the Gulf of Mexico to gain strength in the warm waters, the relatively weak storm was about to grow into a monster not seen in the U.S. in some 13 years.

For the next five days, Katrina grew into a massive hurricane – the system strengthened to a Category 5 storm on August 28th, as it made a B-line straight for New Orleans. Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29th, 2005. Because of a gust of dry air blowing out of the Midwest, the storm jogged slightly to the east, avoiding a direct hit on the Crescent City (it made landfall at Buras, Louisiana). The dry weather also knocked Katrina’s intensity down to a Category 4 storm. Katrina was the fourth most powerful hurricane ever observed by scientists.

When Katrina made landfall, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center estimated top sustained winds to be at about 140 mph (Category 4 status). But on December 20th, 2005, the NHC revised its initial estimate and downgraded Katrina’s landfall strength to a Category 3 (top sustained winds of 125 mph).

Nevertheless, the fallout from Katrina was unimaginable:

  • More than 1,500 people in Louisiana were killed by the storm…
  • 231-238 people were killed in Mississippi…
  • Another 20+ people were killed in Florida, Georgia and Ohio…

By August 30th, three levees in New Orleans had broken in six places flooding an estimated 75-80% of the city. The main one that gave a problem: the day after Katrina hit the 17th Street Canal lost a 200 foot section that eventually grew to a breach of more than 450 feet. The 17th Street Canal burst on its east side (the New Orleans side) near the Old Hammond Highway Bridge flooding large parts of downtown New Orleans, Orleans Parrish, the French Quarter and the Lower 9th Ward. The breach was noteworthy in that the levee failed on the east side four feet below design specifications; in contrast, on the west side of the levee, Jefferson Parrish remained relatively water free.

The two other levees that broke: the London Avenue Canal (just to the east) lost about 45 feet of wall in two different sections (near Robert E. Lee Boulevard and near the Mirabeau Avenue Bridge). On the Industrial Canal (also known as the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal or IHNC) there were three major breaches: the first was on the northeast side of the canal near the junction of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Two more breaches occurred on the southeast side of the canal between Florida Avenue and Claiborne Avenue (in the Lower 9th Ward). For the 2005 fiscal year (before Katrina hit), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had requested $78 million to strengthen levees and improve pump stations for New Orleans. The Bush administration however knocked the request down to just $30 million (in the end, Congress approved $36.5 million).

In the wake of Katrina, the 17th Street Canal wasn’t plugged for a week (Labor Day- September 5th, 2005); it took USACE six weeks to completely pump the water out of New Orleans (they didn’t finish until October 11th, 2005). At one time, 80% of New Orleans was underwater; complicating the task was a hit by Hurricane Rita on September 24th, 2005.

On May 15th, 2006, USACE released findings from their investigation: the failure of the Industrial Canal was due to the fact part of the levee was unstable because the ground elevation was lower on one side of the wall than on the other (near Florida Avenue). Canal designs call for the ground elevation to be higher on the non-water side. The failures on the London Avenue Canal and 17th Street Canal were due to the canals separating from their foundations, creating a gap, and allowing water to seep into the ground surrounding the walls. The levees moved because of large layers of unstable clay that allowed the canal walls to bulge outwards…

Only three of the city’s 148 pumps were operational in the immediate aftermath of the flooding (September 6th, 2005). Within the next four days, a total of 32 pumps were back on line with 38 additional portable pumps brought in…

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco ordered the entire city (an estimated 484,000 people) evacuated the day after Katrina hit…

Ten thousand people took refuge in the New Orleans Superdome during the storm. Katrina tore part of the roof from the structure; after it passed, another fifteen thousand people showed up for shelter before authorities had to start turning them away. A day after the storm, water had risen to three feet surrounding the complex…

In addition to those who sought shelter at the Superdome, another 20,000 people piled into the New Orleans Convention Center after Katrina. The facility was not ready for the mass of people; the gathering of refugees (I know: strong wording) in the Convention Center led to an ugly confrontation on television: on September 1st, 2005, Michael Brown (the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency) appeared on CNN’s Paula Zahn Live evening broadcast. In a stunning confession of pure stupidity, Brown admitted live, on national television that he and FEMA were unaware of the plight of thousands of people stuck at the convention center without food or water until earlier that day. The conversation between Zahn and Brown went like this:

“Sir,” she said, “you aren’t just telling me you just learned that the folks at the convention center didn’t have food and water until today, are you? You had no idea they were completely cut off?”

“Paula, the federal government did not even know about the Convention Center people until today,” replied Brown. He had made a similar statement just an hour before also live on NBC News with Brian Williams.

Michael Brown was removed from overseeing Katrina recovery efforts on September 9th, 2005 and resigned as head of FEMA on September 12th, 2005. He was quickly replaced by R. David Paulison, a 30 year veteran of firefighting and a member of FEMA for the previous four years…

U.S. 90 that runs into Biloxi Bay was literally stripped away from its support framing…

Interstate 10 a major east/west route in the southern part of the U.S. suffered major structural damage to both spans of its twin bridges running over Lake Pontchartrain connecting New Orleans with Slidell including a total collapse of the northern (westbound) span (follow this Web link for a full report from the USGS).

By default, after Katrina, Baton Rouge became the largest city in Louisiana with a population that almost doubled to over 800,000 people…

About 370,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina ended up in Washington D.C. and 34 different states across the country…

More than 1 million people left their homes because of the hurricane…

According to the U.S. Minerals Management Service, Katrina knocked out 95% of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil output. Oil in the region makes up about 29% of domestic oil production, yielding some 1.5 million barrels of crude oil a day (normal domestic oil production is about 5.4 million barrels a day). In response, President George W. Bush released oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve on August 31st, 2005. The SPR had some 700 million gallons of crude oil stockpiled along the Louisiana and Texas coast. Europe sent over gasoline reserves as the U.S. only stores crude oil for refineries, not processed gasoline…

During Katrina, questions regarding racism arose, a lot. New Orleans was about 2/3 African-American with many blacks living in low level areas prone to flooding. Images of blacks stuck on rooftops, awaiting help in apartment buildings and jamming the Superdome were wide spread across media coverage. Most disturbing: those of blacks looting stores after the storm. The explanation was quite simple: most whites from New Orleans lived in higher elevation areas and weren’t flooded out by rising water. Many blacks lived in Orleans Parrish, right in the center of New Orleans’ so called cereal bowl. On top of that, many whites were affluent enough to jump in their cars and drive away from the city, taking refuge in hotels ( Panama City Beach was literally overrun with people from New Orleans). Finally, many of those who stayed behind (the poor and elderly) simply couldn’t get out of the city fast enough or lacked the means of leaving…

Katrina caused an estimated 25% spike in the unemployment rate in Gulf Coast states ( Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana)…

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings estimated that 247,000 public and private school students in Louisiana were displaced because of the storm. Spellings put that number at 125,000 in Mississippi. 75% of the schools in the coastal areas of those two states sustained significant damage…

75,000 to 100,000 college students in New Orleans had to find new places to go after the storm…

The government chartered four ships to house evacuees (three of them came from Carnival Cruise Lines, the fourth was a ferry called the Scotia Princess). The Holiday, Ecstasy and Sensation were all pulled from regular rotation for the emergency. Both the Sensation and the Ecstasy (each ship can hold 2,052 passengers) docked in Galveston; the Holiday ended up in Mobile (that ship can hold 1,452 passengers). Carnival refunded money to passengers and gave them a $100 voucher towards a future trip. The bill for FEMA from Carnival: $192 million for the rentals and $44 million more in reimbursable expenses.

Within weeks the Carnival part of the plan looked as exorbitantly flawed as the price tag: many evacuees shunned living on the boats and instead headed to shelters on dry land. The government ended up using the boats to house emergency workers, moving the Ecstasy and Sensation into New Orleans. But critics said FEMA overpaid: an independent survey by aides to Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, found that passengers on those ships should pay about $599 a week. When breaking down the amount of money Carnival got per passenger, the total was close to $1,275 a week. Another note: that figure didn’t include moving the ships out of the ports. The FEMA contracts were awarded after just a one-day bid competition by Sealift Command. Greece had offered to send two cruise ships to the U.S. for free, but the Whitehouse said those ships wouldn’t have arrived until October 10th, 2005…

The U.S. government deployed more than 50,000 National Guard troops to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Louisiana had the majority of troops: 30,000. Mississippi had 15,000 and Alabama about 800. This was a little difficult as Louisiana’s 256th Mechanized Infantry Brigade (3,700 members) along with 3,500 Guard troops from Mississippi and another 2,000 Alabama troops were deployed overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq…

Some wondered why the regular Army was not called in. The answer is simple: it’s against the law. The Posse Comitatus law of 1878 largely prohibits the use of the military as a domestic police force. The National Guard is considered a state militia and is under the command of the state’s governor, not the U.S. government. Even though the Army couldn’t be used as a police force, it could be used to rescue people: the U.S. government sent in 5,000 members of the 82nd Airborne Division to help with evacuations. Other parts of the armed forces were used for both search and rescue as well as law enforcement including the Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy. Within two weeks after Katrina hit there were some 17,000 active duty military personnel deployed in the area…

The damage from Katrina was nowhere close to being limited to just New Orleans: the coastal community of Waveland, Mississippi was literally wiped off the map (the town was on the powerful eastside of the storm when Katrina came ashore). Waveland had a population of some 7,000 people…

In a time of crisis, the U.S. is the first to offer up assistance to foreign countries in the form of supplies and money. To the credit of this planet, foreign countries stepped up to offer the U.S. help in the wake of Katrina. Among the highlights:Australia: $8 million…

  • Bangladesh: $1 million…
  • Canada: Three Naval ships, a Coast Guard vessel and various helicopters…
  • China: $5 million…
  • Cuba: 110 doctors…
  • Greece: Two cruise ships to house the homeless…
  • Japan: $1.4 million, power generators and portable water tanks…
  • Kuwait: $500,000 million!…
  • Mexico: Sent dozens of troops into San Antonio to help with evacuee operations.
  • It was a stark contrast in history: the last time Mexican troops were in that city was the seizing of the Alamo in 1836…
  • Panama: 120,000 pounds of bananas…
  • Qatar: $100,000 million!…
  • Taiwan: $2 million…
  • Venezuela: $1 million barrels of gas, $5 million water purification plants and 50 tons of food and water…

The best of the bunch actually came from Indonesia and Sri Lanka: both countries were hit by a massive tsunami in 2004 suffering unimaginable losses of human life ( Indonesia had over 130,000 people killed and Sri Lanka lost over 30,000 people). Indonesia pledged 45 doctors and 10,000 blankets while Sri Lanka pledged $25,000…

As for how powerful the storm was, the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration said that although Hurricane Camille was a stronger storm, Katrina was more devastating because of the radius of the storm (120 miles out from the center), where the storm made landfall and its powerful sustained winds.

Until 2005, Hurricane Gilbert (1988) was the strongest hurricane ever observed in the Atlantic with a minimum central pressure of 888 millibars (Gilbert was surpassed by Wilma- Wilma had a minimum central pressure of 882 millibars). Katrina’s pressure dropped as low as 902 millibars, and is the fourth lowest on record.