Thursday, February 9, 2012

Two Dames: Katrina and Rita

By Rob Watson

Dear Student,
You should move away from the theme that wetland deterioration was a major contributing factor at the disaster in New Orleans.  Wetlands are south of New Orleans, the lake is north. For the Mississippi coast the Gulf is south. Where Katrina hit, the wind from the south hit the gulf coast and the wind from the north hit New Orleans.

This disaster was the result, first and foremost, of incredibly bad luck. Other contributing factors were poor engineering, bad government, and public apathy.

Katrina waded ashore at precisely the right point to destroy the Mississippi coast and New Orleans. The counterclockwise flow of winds rushed north across the gulf unhindered, to smash Mississippi. Then on the back side they blew south unhindered across Lake Pontchartrain to hit New Orleans. In each case the winds built up a huge storm surge and drove monster waves against everything in their path. In Mississippi they hit casinos, in barges on the coast, and homes and businesses built at the water's edge. In New Orleans they hit poorly designed seawall, that could have protected but did not.

In 1969 precisely the same thing happened. Mississippi’s casinos were destroyed but the Louisiana seawall held. I took some science students from Lake Charles through the area in the spring of 1970, on our way to see a total eclipse in Florida. Mississippi looked exactly the same both times: total devastation inland for about a half mile.

To contrast the areas in Louisiana, My sister lives north of the lake and my niece lived south. My sister had a new, well constructed house and stayed in it throughout the storm. In fact I talked to her by phone as the worst of the storm closed in. Her great fear was that the great pine trees nearby would blow over and hit her house. The wind was blowing south across land. If your trees held up you had no problems, depending on how you feel about rain driven by 120 mile per hour winds.

My Niece’s house was flooded... because the city manager ordered all the workers who operated the flood control pumps to shut them off and evacuate. Niece got 6” of water in her house. They got exactly the same thing in 1995 when another hurricane blew through. She has built a new house in Baton Rouge and moved. She says two hurricanes are enough. She lived about a mile on the dry side of one of the canals that burst a levee. We saw the area and spent a couple of nights in the French Quarter in December after Katrina. The French Quarter is on high ground beside the river. It never floods.

The city had received $500,000,000 to fix the levies. It was spent on “other” things. The state failed to ask the federal government for help and the federal government failed to ask the state if they were being stupid. (A good experianced government bureaucrat was replace by an inexperienced one when national administrations changed.)

Legend has it that the Louisiana National Guard was in the armory riding out the storm. Their goal was to be ready when the storm passed, to quickly start the recovery efforts. They had just reported all was well when someone noticed water running in under the door. All the disaster relief vehicles were flooded out. The rescuers needed rescue.

A couple of weeks later Hurricane Rita waded ashore at Sabine Pass on the Louisiana-Texas line. Here the wetlands did their job. The huge storm surge and the wind driven waves dissipated their energy on the 20 miles of swamps and wetlands south of Lake Charles. (Cameron, La was on the coast like Biloxi. It got washed away, same as happened in 1956) Tornados, which sometimes accompany hurricanes. did some damage. Trees blew down, but most things were OK.

When Rita came along shortly after Katrina, the cities, states, national government, and the people, having seen the result of stupidity, respectively did their jobs or got the hell out of the way.

Galveston was the second largest city in the US when hit by a hurricane in 1900. The city was destroyed and never recovered. They built a huge sea wall of concrete. The city fathers jacked up all that remained and filled in under it with sand. They have weathered direct hits and near misses for a hundred years without major damage. Rita repeated the lesson of 1900 for those not clever enough to learn from history. The people from Mississippi and New Orleans should take a vacation (and a lesson from) there. You should too. The beaches are great and the food is wonderful. Look for where the seawall stopped and total destruction started.

Respectfully, Mr. Watson

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