Hurricanes have something called storm surge. Anything moving that is fifty miles across will have a wake in front of it. Add wind spinning at more than 150 miles per hour, a whole whack of rain and a storm surge is something even senior legislators can comprehend.
The levee system in New Orleans and the Gulf was designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to handle the anticipated storm surge and power of a Category III hurricane. Historically, that was the worst that rolled through the area. The anticipated storm surge was guesstimated to be fourteen feet above sea level. Consequently, everything was designed for that kind of event.
There is common sense in those numbers. As an example, the World Trade Centre towers, designed in the late 60’s, were engineered to take a one time hit from the biggest aircraft of the day, the 707. Fast forward almost forty years and things are different. The same holds true with the levee preparations in the Gulf. The worst experienced was a Category III, therefore engineer and build for that what you know might happen.
There are some folks who are determined to blame the Corps for the levee failures and the general collapse of the whole system of flood protection. I’m not going to buy that loaf of blame: The Army Corps of Engineers is funded by the Feds and have suffered all kinds of cutbacks from various governments over the years. Muddy, messy and hidden from view, infrastructure stuff is not glamorous, vote-garnering super-deluxe projects for the Congress, Senate or White House. It gets ignored and gets its’ budget cut to ribbons, usually to fund some more visible projects.
After the eyewall of Katrina hit, the storm surge came inland. Some estimates put the storm surge at 20 feet, or more, above sea level in various areas.
Twenty feet is, approximately, two storeys high. Stand in your front yard and look up at the top of your single storey house. That is around twenty feet. Water weighs 1 kilogram per liter, or just under 7 pounds per US gallon. Pile up twenty feet of 1 liter milk cartons. Do the math, then repeat it hundreds of thousands of times. You get a number that is, um…much big and heavy, moving forward. Not good for houses, cars, trucks, trains, oil refineries, apartment buildings, humans or flood walls.
The flood walls actually survived rather well, considering they weren’t designed for that kind of walloping. However, some did fail, flooding the topographic bowl that describes New Orleans. Eighty percent of the city was flooded. Further to the east, Mississippi coastal towns saw huge floating casino barges washed into the downtown streets. Whole villages were scrubbed away. Seaside homes simply disappeared along with the cars, trucks, trailers, chickens, cows, pigs, sheds, barns, boats, docks and everything else associated with human habitation.
In the New Orleans Superdome, part of the roof ripped off in the wind. There was no light, ventilation or water to flush the toilets, as there was no electricity. There were rumours though. The rumours ranged from the city is gone completely, completely untouched, completely flooded, partially flooded and everything in between. The more enjoyable rumours were that looters had already carried off most of the downtown to busses were coming in the next hour to evacuate everyone to Baton Rouge. None of these rumours were true, but nobody in the area knew it, as they didn’t have access to media beyond basic radio coverage.
The video coming out of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf told the rest of us the real story. Things were very bad. There was a lot of flooding. There was a lot of damage. This wasn’t a special strange channel that only certain people received. This was on CNN and the three major networks. As best I can determine, cable television has come to Washington D.C., which means someone in power, like, oh, the President of the United States, might be able to have one of his aides turn one on and let him look at it.
The day ended. No more food. No more water. No busses. No medical aid. No electricity. No help and no information. Those who didn’t or couldn’t get to the Superdome or the Convention Centre were confronted with rapidly rising water. They climbed into the attics or up on the roof as the floodwaters rose. Helicopters flew as long as light was available, plucking the lucky few off rooftops. At night, the less flooded areas saw people trying to get by. There was some crime, as the police was crippled by the flooding too. A couple of hundred New Orleans Police looked around and said “to hell with it” They quit on the spot and left. Those who were left tried to keep some kind of order.
The next day the helicopter rescues continued. HeliNet, who provide traffic helicopters for television stations, provided wall to wall coverage and commentary for the networks. Every few minutes a Coast Guard helicopter plucked someone off a roof.
At the Superdome, nothing changed, except the stench and the rumours. Over at the Convention Centre, the heat beat down on people clustered on the sidewalk. The interior of the Convention Centre had become uninhabitable. There was nobody in charge.
People looted stores, at first to get water, food and clothing, having lost everything. Then, looters changed their tactics: Everything was open to steal. They stole it. Luggage, shoes by the dozens, makeup, furniture, electronics, anything and everything was looted.
The Police, understaffed and unable to cope, tried to keep the most egregious of looting under control. Except the local police stations were also under water, without power and no way to take in prisoners. The authorities, including the Feds, promised everything was on the way to help. Nothing moved. Another night fell on another day of no food, no water, no help and no information. The rest of us saw images of dead people floating in the floodwaters.
For two more days this was the situation. New Orleans became a fourth world city without police, order, or food. People were terrorized and traumatized by the heat, lack of water, lack of food and absolutely no help from anyone. Fires started in various buildings. Everything that could be looted, was looted. Dead people were parked on the sidewalks, some draped to provide a modicum of dignity in an undignified death.
Several dozen rapes were reported in the Superdome and the Convention Centre as gangs of thugs, with no hope and no morality did whatever they felt like doing. Shootings were common. Human waste piled up in the shelters of last resort. More people died from exposure and dehydration. Hospitals tried their best to get their most seriously ill patients evacuated. The Louis Armstrong Airport had a mobile medical centre set up to handle all kinds of casualties, but nobody was being evacuated in any numbers.
In Mississippi, the survivors came out of shelters or back from high ground and started to pick up what little was left. There wasn’t much they could do. Everything that was needed to start the recovery was washed away or flood damaged beyond use. Like New Orleans, the need was food, water and shelter.
There was much promising of help, aid and assistance from the Feds. We all remember the “Brownie, you’re doing a hell of a job” quote from Dubya on the fourth day when he jetted in for a photo op and jetted out as fast as he could. We also remember his photo op in Mississippi when he conveniently stopped where an African American teen and her mom were pre-staged for another photo op in a sanitized area of Gulfport. Those of us with good memory cells also remember a man yelling at Dubya during that photo op, pleading for help, until the Secret Service whisked him away.
There were a dozen stories of fleets of trucks of ice, water and food being delayed outside the flood area by FEMA people unsure of how to and where to distribute things. The US navy sent a hospital ship and FEMA booked a cruise ship to dock in New Orleans to provide emergency housing, but it took more than six days for anything to begin to trickle into the area.
Adult humans can live without food for four or five days, without water for about three days. At that point there are serious medical consequences to dehydration and lack of food. The emotional consequences are permanent.