The Warnings Were There

Pushed a 17-foot storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain;

Caused the levees between the lake and the city to overtop and fill the city ‘bowl’ with water from lake levee to river levee, in some places as deep as 20 feet;

Flooded the north shore suburbs of Lake Pontchartrain with waters pushing as much as seven miles inland; and inundated inhabited areas south of the Mississippi River. Up to 80 percent of the structures in these flooded areas would have been severely damaged from wind and water. The potential for such extensive flooding and the resulting damage is the result of a levee system that is unable to keep up with the increasing flood threats from a rapidly eroding coastline and thus unable to protect the ever-subsiding landscape.”[2]

In the aftermath of Katrina, 80% of New Orleans was flooded and underwater, the City had no power for weeks and much of the area remained uninhabitable for three months or longer. Again, The Natural Hazards Observer was on the mark:

“…it is estimated that it would take nine weeks to pump the water out of the city, and only then could assessments begin to determine what buildings were habitable or salvageable. EarnWithSocial Sewer, water, and the extensive forced drainage pumping systems would be damaged. National authorities would be scrambling to build tent cities to house the hundreds of thousands of refugees unable to return to their homes and without other relocation options. In the aftermath of such a disaster, New Orleans would be dramatically different, and likely extremely diminished, from what it is today…

…Regional and national rescue resources would have to respond as rapidly as possible and would require augmentation by local private vessels (assuming some survived). And, even with this help, federal and state governments have estimated that it would take 10 days to rescue all those stranded within the city. No shelters within the city would be free of risk from rising water,” [3] The Natural Hazards Observer also reported in 2004 reinforcing the need to evacuate everyone from the city. And with the statement that “no shelters” within the city would be safe from floodwaters, it made little sense endangering people in the Convention Center and Superdome.

With the first National Hurricane Center (NHC) and National Weather Service (NWS) warnings out a full two days before Katrina struck it is feasible that an organized evacuation utilizing every available vehicle could have removed the vast majority of people prior to hurricane’s arrival.

When an evacuation was undertaken during Ivan’s threat, approximately 600,000 people (50% of the City’s population) fled in their own vehicles from September 13-15 according to The Natural Hazards Observer when “contraflow” (the use of all lanes to flow out of the city) was implemented. It took nearly 11 hours for people to make the normally 1½ hour journey toward the northwest and Baton Rouge demonstrating that despite over-reliance and shortfalls of “contraflow,” a near complete evacuation was possible with effective deployment of all available vehicles.

The conclusion of The Natural Hazards Observer’s 2004 report:

“Should this disaster become a reality, it would undoubtedly be one of the greatest disasters, if not the greatest, to hit the United States, with estimated costs exceeding 100 billion dollars (overall Katrina caused $75 billion in damage). According to the American Red Cross, such an event could be even more devastating than a major earthquake in California. Survivors would have to endure conditions never before experienced in a North American disaster.” [4]

Second, the possibility that levee failures could occur from a powerful storm was also known. “According to the Times-Picayune… Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Joe Allbaugh ordered a sophisticated computer simulation of what would happen if a Category 5 storm hit New Orleans [in 2002]. Joseph Suhayda, an engineer at Louisana State University who worked on the project, described… what… could happen: …some part of the levee would fail. It’s not something that’s expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing. The most continuous barrier is the south levee, along the river. That’s 25 feet high, so you’ll see the water pile up on the river levee.”[5]

Third, prior to the 9/11 attacks, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report “detailed the three most likely catastrophic disasters that could happen in the United States: a terrorist attack in New York, a strong earthquake in San Francisco, and a hurricane strike in New Orleans.” [6] It was because of this assessment that a hurricane simulation was held in 2002 to determine what “would happen if a category 5 storm [struck, and] when the exercise was completed it was evidence that we were going to lose a lot of people. We changed the name of the [simulated] storm from Delaney to K-Y-A-G-B… kiss your ass goodbye… because anybody who was here as that category five storm came across… was gone, ” Walter Maestri, the emergency coordinator of Jefferson Parish in New Orleans recounted.[7]

Fourth, federal, state and local officials knew as far back as the late 1960s that New Orleans was highly vulnerable. Yet after the Army Corps of Engineers spent over $430 million through 1995-2005 (spurred after six died in a major rainstorm in May 1995) on the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA) to reinforce levees and pumping stations, at least $250 million of critical projects remained when funding for SELA was significantly reduced due to the drop in revenues from federal tax cuts and the high costs of the Iraq War and homeland security.

The Times-Picayune wrote on June 18, 2004: “The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don’t get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can’t stay ahead of the settlement…”[8]

Although the federal government restored some funding, it was insufficient. Ironically, when Hurricane Katrina struck, the Senate had been seeking to restore some of the SELA funding cuts in 2006, while contractors were in the process of repairing the 17th Street Canal levee where the main breach had occurred flooding much of New Orleans.

In conclusion there were ample warnings from the National Hurricane Center (NHC), National Weather Service (NWS) and previous studies. If these warnings and the persistent pleas for additional funding to shore up the City’s levee defenses had not been ignored, a mandatory evacuation had been carried out, and rescue and emergency resources had been deployed near New Orleans in advance of the expected landfall, the damage to and loss of life could have been mitigated.


[1]Eric Lipton and Scott Shane. Homeland Security Chief Defends Federal Response. The New York Times, September 4, 2005. 26.

[2]Matthew Barge. Is Bush to Blame for New Orleans Flooding? 2 September 2005. 4 September 2005. []

[3]Matthew Barge. Is Bush to Blame for New Orleans Flooding? 2 September 2005. 4 September 2005. []



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