Hurricane Katrina Should Not Have Been A Surprise

View of New Orleans from Air Force One following a Hurricane; but it's NOT the Hurricane that You May Think

Flooding In New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward Well After A Hurricane. Note the Era of the Rescue Helicopter

On This Date in History:  When a category 4 hurricane approached the Southeast Coast of Louisiana, residents who did not leave the city of New Orleans were urged to stock up on food that did not have to be cooked as well as plenty of water.    They were urged to have an emergency radio and flashlights with fully charged batteries and make certain that gas tanks were topped off.  Residents who had small boats were told to make sure that their boats were secured.   As the hurricane roared toward shore, 8 offshore oil rigs were lost, including one owned by the former company of President George H. W. Bush.  Even though the hurricane weakened to a category 3 storm at landfall, a huge storm surge pushed west up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.  Levees along the Mississippi Gulf River Outlet and along the Industrial canal failed.  Water in the Lower Ninth Ward reached the roofs of several homes and some residents drowned as they were trapped in their attics, attempting to escape the rising waters.  The levee breaches not only flooded the Ninth Ward, but also Chalmette, Gentilly and parts of St. Bernard Parish.  

Flooding In New Orleans From a Hurricane 40 years before Katrina

After 10 days, the water receded and left behind were over 164,000 homes  flooded by the hurricane.   Rumors persisted that levees were intentionally breached in an effort to protect more valuable property than that in less affluent areas such as Chalmette and Lower Ninth Ward.  However, evidence suggests that the failure of the levees was the result of substandard construction and poor maintenance.  The President of the United States had a busy schedule and had no plans to visit the devastated region.   The influential Senator from Louisiana called the President and told him, “…we have really had it down there, and we need your help.”  The President replied, “you got it.”   The Senator asked the President to visit New Orleans so he could see the devastation for himself.  But, the President explained that his schedule was full but said, “Let me look and see what I can back out of and get into and so on and so forth and let me give you a ring back if I can’t go, I’ll put the best man I got there.”  The Senator said he didn’t want his “best man.” 

Hurricane Betsy's Erratic Storm Track Was blamed by some on aircraft research missions flying into the storm

The Senator reminded the President of the political benefits of the President of the United States visiting the region.  The Senator was up for re-election and reminded the Commander-In-Chief of what a presidential visit would mean to his own re-election prospects to the US Senate.  “When I run for office next time, I’m going to be on the same dodge you’re going to be on. And frankly, if you go to Louisiana right now, you might be . . . just make it a stopover. We’ll [unclear]. You go to Louisiana right now, land at Moisant Airport.”   He then added a little extra flair by illustrating an imaginary news story:   “The President was very much upset about the horrible destruction and damage done to this city of New Orleans, lovely town. The town that everybody loves.”  The President first flew over the city in Air Force One before he eventually landed at Moisant Airport in New Orleans.

LBJ Gave Orders Better Than He Took Them But He Listened to Russell Long

The name of that hurricane was Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and the President of the United States was Lyndon B. Johnson. Hurricane Betsy was the first hurricane to cause damage worth over $1 Billion (1965 dollars), thus it was tabbed “Billion Dollar Betsy.”  The White House Tape Recording of the phone call from Sen. Russell Long to President Johnson and his response to Hurricane Betsy reveals that Long also reminded the president that he had lost Louisiana in the 1964 election and if he just came by for a visit, then “… they couldn’t beat you if Eisenhower ran.”  It is absolutely amazing of the similarity in several aspects surrounding Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Meteorologists were well aware of the lessons of Betsy but the media was completely ignorant and largely remain so today.  After Hurricane Betsy, the levee system was expanded and improved around the city of New Orleans but the same issues arose regarding construction and also maintenance.  But, even though Betsy was a stronger storm at landfall than Katrina, Katrina proved to be even more devastating to the Crescent City than had Betsy 40 years before.

Result of Storm Surge Through the Gulf Outlet From Hurricane Betsy 1965

Winds with Betsy in New Orleans were much higher than they were with Katrina as Katrina had weakened substantially prior to landfall as it went through and eyewall replacement cycle and Betsy actually hit New Orleans whereas Katrina did not.  However, Katrina still maintained its formidable storm surge associated with a category 4 or 5 hurricane.  Perhaps the greatest difference between the two storms was the angle of attack.  Hurricane Betsy came from the Southeast and moved Northwest.  It moved just south of the city and the city actually experienced both the north and east eyewall.  Katrina approached from the South-Southwest, very similar to Hurricane Camille in 1969 and the city was never affected by the eyewall.  Most computer models create a worst case scenario for a hurricane affecting New Orleans as a category 5 approcahing from the Southwest.  I’ve seen SLOSH models that put 30 feet of water in downtown New Orleans in association with a category 5 hurricane making landfall around Houma.  Like Katrina, Betsy was a category 5 hurricane that declined to category three level at landfall but its attack from the Southeast meant that the storm surge pushing west up Lake Bourne and into the Gulf Outlet or into Lake Pontchartrain was limited.  A storm approching fromm the Southwest has all of the Gulf of Mexico to grab and push into the region while a storm like Betsy threw much of its surge on Alabama and Mississippi and the orientation of the Gulf Coast relative to its approach also limited the water available for a surge.  Hence,  Katrina had a bigger surge than Betsy.

Katrina Storm Track

It is also important to recognize that Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans.  Hurricane Katrina did not hit New Orleans; it hit Mississippi. The track was very similar to that of Hurricane Camille in 1969.  It could have been much worse and unless we do not understand what happened with Katrina and Betsy 40 years before, then the same thing will happen again.  However, should a category 5 hurricane make a landfall near Houma heading North-Northeast, then I suspect that any effort man makes will help but will not offer full protection.  While Katrina was far worse than Betsy for New Orleans, the lessons from 40 years before should have been heeded.  Some tried.  The New Orleans Times Picayune eerily published a story called “Washing Away” in 2002 that outlined the disasterous effect of even a moderate hurricane on New Orleans.  No one listened.

hurricane-katrina-51On This Date in 2005 New Orleans, Louisiana was under water.  It had been affected by Hurricane Katrina, but there are some things to remember from Katrina. As I mentioned, Katrina was only a category three hurricane when it made landfall on Monday morning August 29, 2005. Its winds had diminished just prior to landfall due a natural (and well timed)  eyewall replacement cycle. That is a natural process for a hurricane when new eye forms as the old one collapses. The maximum winds decrease typically and the energy gets dispersed somewhat. So the result was that 100 mph winds went beyond Mobile but the top winds were down to 120-130 mph. But, remember, the storm previously had winds of 175 mph and just because you reduce the winds does not mean the sea will react immediately so the storm surge remained what would be associated with a category 5 storm.

Katrina Surge in MS over 8 meters

Katrina Surge in MS over 8 meters

The surge in Mississippi was well over 30 feet in places. That is because it swept up the water from the mouth of the Mississippi, which is the Mississippi Trench. The water there is about 8,000 feet deep, give or take. The water along the shelf of the Mississippi coast is about 90 feet. There is no place for the water to go but on the land.  Hurricane Betsy did not draw on the same deep source for the surge and also had a vector heading that spread much of the surge along the coast.  Nevertheless, Lousiana still did not get the main surge with Katrina either.  Mississippi took the full brunt of the Katrina’s surge.  Mississippi was hit by the main force of the hurricane’s wind and water with New Orleans being on the western edge. The surge to the west of the eye was still substantial and actually went up Lake Bourne with the winds ahead of the storm coming from the East and shoving the water up the intercoastal waterway and then to the Industrial Canal and finally to the wall that collapsed into the Lower 9th Ward. I am told that the flood wall was designed to be weaker on that side of the canal so that if there was a huge force that threatened the integrity of the wall, the main part of the city would be protected. The Lower 9th Ward is in a natural marshy area and not a higher area like the French Quarter.   With Hurricane Betsy, the flood wall along the Industrial Canal did fail on both sides.

Storm Tide up Lake Bourne From Easterly Wind Ahead of Katrina about 5 meters

Storm Tide up Lake Bourne From Easterly Wind Ahead of Katrina about 5 meters

As a review, the New Orleans Times Picayune has a site that shows the progression of flooding of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina which includes a timeline. When you get to the flooding of Jefferson Parish, its important to note that the pumping station had been abandoned prior to the storm by order of the Police Jury President. The workers wanted to stay but politicians ordered them out. The defense of the police jury is that they said it was part of a “doomsday plan” devised years before to send workers 100 miles north in the event of a major hurricane. They say that they were prepared for a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. But, many residents say they would not have been flooded had the workers been allowed to stay at their posts. Further, at 11pm CDT on the 27th, the National Hurricane Center Forecast was not for a direct hit on New Orleans, but instead a Mississippi landfall.  Had the public officials not ordered the pumping station abandoned, its possible that many millions in property damage would not have happened.

The true story of Katrina, in my mind, has not been accurately portrayed in the press. In fact, I recall seeing a national news reporter saying from the French Quarter that the city had “dodged a bullet” when, in fact, the timeline shows that the levees on the east side of town had been over-topped hours before and the eastern suburbs were under water. Even when flooding had become known,  many news outlets used the same tired phrase that “New Orleans had dodged a bullet.”    Not surprisingly, most of those stories have been removed from internet archived files.  The fiasco that was the Superdome during Katrina was also not something that should have been a surprise as during Hurricane Georges, a similar situation resulted. The result of 14,000 people seeking shelter from Georges in 1998 was that evacuees stole furniture and damaged property that resulted in thousands of dollars in losses, and there were difficulties supplying the people living temporarily in the dome with necessities.  The procedures were not changed and the media had no clue that it had happened before.  From my experience, there are far more ignorant and uncreative people in television news than the public knows.  Way too many “journalists” are more interested in being on TV than in actually getting to the bottom of a story.  Often, they are incapable of understanding the nuts and bolts of a story or those who are competent become lazy or simply ignore facts that do not fit their world view.   For that reason, the true story may be years in being revealed to the public as true academics unravel the whole story.

Blanco Shows Leadership Skills Following Katrina

Blanco Shows Leadership Skills Following Katrina

In spite of my general feelings regarding the press, there are some who are willing and able to tell a full story.  On Sept 5, 2005 the Washington Post reported that the Governor of Louisiana refused to ask or allow for Federal Troops and takeover of relief efforts, partly due to political concern over how it would look for a Democrat Governor needing the help of President Bush. We have a federation and the Federal Government cannot just willy nilly send in troops into a state unless it falls under the guidelines of the Insurrection Act. By the time the governor had allowed the Feds in on that level, the city was already cut off. Other reports point to the Washington Post story stating that Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had not declared a state of emergency prior to the storm (which was false, she did) as proof that none of that is true.

Gulfport MS: What a Direct Hit from a Major Hurricane Really Looks like..there's nothing left

Gulfport MS: What a Direct Hit from a Major Hurricane Really Looks like..there's nothing left

However, historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in his book Deluge that, while Blanco did declare a state of emergency, she only filled out a legal form that requested Federal assistance after the storm. Brinkley says, “If Blanco’s message to Bush had been an emphatic letter or frantic telephone call, and not merely a legal form—if it had actually communicated what wasn’t happening in Louisiana (i.e., evacuation)—various U.S. government agencies might have mobilized more quickly. Just as New Orleans wasn’t properly communicating with Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge wasn’t properly communicating to Washington, D.C. There was a chain of failures.” Brinkley does find fault with FEMA director Mike Brown for his lack of urgency. The fact that Brown was a little laid back is a bit odd since he had generally led hurricane relief efforts for Hurricane Ivan, Wilma, Charlie and Jean in Florida just the year before and the post storm criticism never seemed to come from Mississippi where the storm actually hit…it was just Louisiana. But, Brinkley also points out how a member of the Louisiana legislature tried to get Mayor Ray Nagin to understand the grave situtation but that they mayor was watching Little League Baseball less than 48 hours before the storm.

Hurricane Katrina as Cat 5 Hurricane Well Before Landfall

There is plenty of blame to go around.  From my experience in the media, it is no surprise at all that collectively they knew nothing about Hurricane Betsy nor that they initially had no clue about the flooding.  The way that they reported Katrina made it sound like the Lower 9th Ward and Chalmette had never been flooded like that before and both areas suffered similar flooding with Hurricane Betsy.  The newsfolks made it sound like the problems at the Superdome were unprecedented when, in fact,  a nearly identical situation with evacuees at the Superdome had happened in the past.  When people started charging that levees were purposely destroyed, no one thought to remind people that in 1965 similar charges were made.   Nevertheless, what is so terrible about this is not so much the nitwittery of the media, but instead the public officials.  They had some plans that simply didn’t work the way they were supposed to or should have worked.   But there were other concerns from previous storms that were never addressed nor corrected.  Political considerations were also an unnecessary and unhelpful part of Hurricane Betsy and Hurricane Katrina.  Elections matter.  I have always speculated that had Mike Foster still been the Governor of Louisiana, the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans may not have been so devastating.   However, while it could have and should have been better, it was going to be a disaster no matter what regardless of whether Lyndon Johnson was President or George W. Bush or whether Mike Foster or Kathleen Blanco was Governor. Man proposes, God disposes.

Weather Bottom Line:  The humidity levels have increased again so it will be a little more uncomfortable with lows in the upper 60’s.  Highs will be in the lower 90’s.  I told you that I thought that we had turned the corner on the excessive heat and humidity but that did not mean there would be no more 90 degree days.  It will be dry for the next several days, though an errant afternoon t’shower can’t be totally ruled out.


4 Responses

  1. You’ve done a great job of drawing the parallels. No need for me to add a thing, so I just tweeted it 😉

    I was interested in this:

    From my experience, there are far more ignorant and uncreative people in television news than the public knows… Often, they are incapable of understanding the nuts and bolts of a story or those who are competent become lazy or simply ignore facts that do not fit their world view.

    It happens in every arena. Anyone who’s followed the various Deepwater briefings and Q&A sessions with Admiral Allen and Kent Wells has to have been astonished by the number of vapid or irrelevant questions from reporters for the so-called “mainstream” media.

    Yes, the issues are highly technical. True, most of these folks don’t have experience covering oil’n’gas. But far too many of their questions have suggested they don’t want to do the hard work of learning that “jus’ folks” are doing all over the Gulf Coast.

  2. Ohh..the stories I could tell. Let see there was the woman who didn’t know where the Philippines were located. According to news reports on stations that I worked at or others I’ve seen, some national…that the space shuttle flies 17 times the speed of light…faster than the star ship enterprise…the John Glenn was the 1st man in space…the it was general George MacArthur who said I shall Return or that Hawaii is about 500 miles from the South American Coast? All of that I got from TV news and they weren’t type o’s…they were deliberately written that way, except for the guy from CNN who told the expert that “that is Hawaii” when he pointed to the map and the guy said, “no, that is the Gallapagos Islands.”

  3. I just discovered your blog and, as a native New Orleanian, decided to see what you had to say about Hurricane Camille, which destroyed family property in the Pass and is the second hurricane I experienced, but not the first one I remember. That was Audrey in 1957, which practically destroyed Cameron, LA.

    My first hurricane, Betsy, came in just a day or so before I left for college as a freshman. My friends and I slept on mattresses laid down the center hall of our “raised cottage” on Chestnut St. We had real shutters, so no plywood was required. My mother paced the house, front to back, stepping over (or on) us. My father, who understood these things, opened the windows on the leeward (uptown, in this case) side of the house as the storm approached, and then, after the eye had passed through, closed them and opened the windows on the downtown — NOW the leeward — side. That was my first real lesson in air pressure.

    The winds were amazing, but we had shutters so no plywood was required. The next day my brother spent the first of many days down in Chalmette and St. Bernard, rescuing people stranded on their roofs, and my father showed me a piece of slate from the roof of the school a block away, buried more than half its width in the clapboard siding of our house, in an attempt to keep me inside. I always loved the hours before the storm really hit, when the air was green and the first gusts were blowing. The slate lesson was given to explain why he yanked me off the front porch while I was exulting in the first REAL winds.

    You are correct that MOST people cannot learn from something they haven’t experienced. God knows what the current crop of meteorologists’ excuses are. Don’t they study weather history?

    There has not been a man (or woman) born who can perfectly predict a hurricane’s path. The tools get better, but the prognostication doesn’t seem to improve. In those days, WE had Nash Roberts, as you might remember. He had the NWS advisories, but he also had awesome instincts about weather. I know that my family, forcibly evacuated to Baton Rouge for Katrina in 2005, wished that we STILL had Nash. Watching it from Atlanta, I did, too.

    By the way, your links to the (“ain’t dere no more”) Times-Picayune are all dead links. has the archives, I believe, if you want to recreate them. And the only newspaper in N.O. is the New Orleans Advocate, which I think is actually a BTR company.

  4. Thank you so much. Times Picayune gone? That paper is as much a part of NOLA as Lee Circle! Change is normal but not everyone likes it

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