Friday, September 02, 2005

How It Happened

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No one likes to see people suffering, so it’s not surprising that along with people stepping up to send aid and coordinate workers, there are others who can do nothing but complain and spew bile. It happens every time there’s a disaster which claims lives, and everyone realizes this is big.
There’s a lot of attention on the relief efforts, so I won’t go into them here, except to ask everyone to give what they can, and to remember that everything matters, especially right now. At the company I work for, hundreds of employees have been allowed paid time off to help work at the Astrodome. They came back to tell stories of people who now have absolutely nothing, not even a change of clothing. Their property is gone, their homes are gone, their workplaces are gone, the banks and schools and churches they went to, all are gone. In many cases they are separated from family, with no way to know if their relatives are even living or dead. It has been a very long time, since the United States of America had to address such a national emergency, a true crisis.

The jackals are already out in force. The looters in New Orleans are proving that the dregs will rise up whenever they have the opportunity, stealing, even raping and murdering innocent. That is why we are sending 40,000 additional troops to New Orleans. The bitter partisans are also already sniping at the relief effort, doing nothing for the victims while standing in the way of the people trying to get the job done. That is why I am writing this article, in my own small way trying to answer reasonable questions and explain how things got to this point.
The first reasonable question for anyone to ask is, why was Katrina so different from other storms? That really comes down to timing, the course of the storm, the history of disaster management, and the scale of the whole thing. Most people forget that there is a sort of fatigue factor in Hurricane seasons. Katrina was the twelfth named storm of the season.

Tropical Storm Arlene started up June 8, but did little more than dump rain for a few days.

Tropical Storm Bret began June 28, and petered out over Southeast Mexico.

Tropical Storm Cindy began July 3, made landfall near New Orleans on July 5, and settled into a Tropical Depression over Mississippi on July 6.

Hurricane Dennis began July 4, reaching wind speeds of 150 mph, making it a Category 4 Hurricane. Ominously, the National Weather Service notes that Dennis is the earliest (in the season) Category 4 storm in the Caribbean on record. Twenty-four people died in the Hurricane, which ravaged Haiti and Cuba before smashing into Florida. Yet news reports at the time remarked that the damage and death toll was less than expected, setting an expectation which would prove dangerous later. Dennis dwindled out on July 12, indicating that a major storm could last more than a few days during this season.

Hurricane Emily began July 11, reaching wind speeds of 155 mph, a deadly Category 3 storm as it ravaged Venezuela and moving up to Category 4 as it headed through Jamaica. Emily killed two people as it moved along the Yucatan peninsula, and finally stalled over Mexico and Texas. Vicente Fox credits the low loss of life to early evacuation efforts along Mexico’s northern coast.

Tropical Storm Franklin began July21, but while it reached wind speeds of 70 mph, Franklin stayed away from land and died off the Northeast U.S. coast, well off-shore.

Tropical Storm Gert began July 23, making landfall over south Mexico on the 24th. The importance of Gert, was it was the record fifth named-storm in July.

Tropical Storm Harvey began August 3, dumped a lot of rain on the Bahamas, but did little else, as it headed out to the mid-Atlantic.

Hurricane Irene began August 4, reaching top wind speeds of 100 mph. Irene made a long trek from about 735 miles off the coast of Africa, all the way across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, alternately weakening and gaining strength as it approached. On August 14, Irene became a Hurricane but was already moving away from land. Irene fell apart over the cold north Atlantic waters as she moved away from Bermuda towards Nova Scotia.

And Tropical Storm Jose began August 22, dying less than a day later in the Southwestern Gulf of Mexico.

So, because there were eleven storms in the Caribbean during 2005 before Katrina, there was a kind of fatigue, a 'been there, done that’ assumption. Also, since the three August storms before Katrina were less dangerous than expected, a false optimism prevailed.

Now, look at the biography of Katrina:

August 24: Tropical Storm Katrina forms from a Tropical Depression crated just one day earlier, gaining strength faster than most storms do.
August 25: Katrina kicked in the door to say hello to Florida, killing 3 and knocking out power to more than a million people. This, as a Category 1 Hurricane. Katrina swept out west to the Gulf of Mexico.

August 26: Media breathe a sigh of relief as Katrina appears to weaken slightly, and is expected to turn North and make landfall as a Tropical Storm over Florida’s Panhandle.

August 26, 5 PM: The National Hurricane Center (NHC) announced a shift in the projected path of Katrina. Now at risk are the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and states upland from its path.

August 27: Against expectations, Katrina is upgraded to Category 3, and appears to be homing in on the Louisiana-Mississippi coastline. New Orleans is predicted to receive about eleven inches of rain from Katrina. The Mayor of New Orleans suggests a voluntary evacuation of the city, but the recommendation is largely ignored, according to the press. USA Today quotes Fred Wilson, who said “"The only dangerous hurricanes so far are the ones we've been drinking," President Bush also ordered a state of emergency for Louisiana in anticipation of the need for Federal assistance, and ordering FEMA to be prepared to assist.

August 28: Katrina reaches Category 5 strength, about 250 miles South of the mouth of the Mississippi River, with sustained wind speeds of 175 mph. The Mayor of New Orleans orders a mandatory evacuation of the city. Mississippi emergency authorities track the storm, but order no evacuations.

August 29, 630 AM: Katrina made landfall in Plaquemines Parish Louisiana, just South of Buras, as a Category 4 storm with 140 mph winds. A wall of water approximately 20 feet high crushes the Gulf Coast along a line more than two hundred miles broad.

August 30: Katrina weakens to a Tropical Depression near Clarksville, Tennessee.

USA Today published an interesting story, noting that New Orleans has been hit many times by major storms. In 1998, New Orleans was ordered evacuated, and the Superdome was used to house refugees, just as it was this time.

The response was, contrary to media reports, immediate and direct. The biggest obstacles were apparent immediately; distribution and communication. Many people have asked why the rescuers could not get to New Orleans since the media did, but the media went in ahead of time and simply camped out there. When the storm hit, it wiped out access to sea and airports, as well as most roads, including I-10.

Katrina came up faster than expected, did not go where expected, and hit harder than expected, taking out the infrastructure which is generally used by emergency services. The plans in place for refugee housing did not include provisions for the total collapse of the levies and the number of victims. It should be noted that no exercise in disaster management is possible for this scale of disaster, nor has anyone responded to a disaster on this scale in less than a week (in the days following the Tsunami disaster in 2004, the first ten days were devoted entirely to removing people by ship and helicopter, a task which was never fully completed, and providing water and food to the refugees, which began to take effect only a week later. The Red Cross reports that the death toll reached 120,000 before any relief arrived) .

The first responders, as always, were local. In this case, however, the fire and police stations had generally been destroyed as well, so that resources were unavailable even to the people trained to be the first providers of relief. With the roads impassable, county and even state agencies were crippled. With no radar or tower communications, aircraft in the area were limited to helicopters and line-of-sight search procedures, which were used extensively during this first week of rescue. The response has been significant, apparently ignored by the media in preference of driving a story of outrage rather than hope. As an example, here in Houston Mayor Bill White took charge of opening the Astrodome to refugees and coordinating the necessary procedures to open vacant apartments for refugees. The Medical Center sent effectively all of its LifeFlight and other medical aircraft to Louisiana to move critically injured patients, including more than a hundred infants and critical-care patients in the first two days after Katrina struck. All Texas schools have opened their doors to the children of refugees, and dozens of local churches have set up shelters, provided clothing and food and showers, and in two specific cases I know, are already planning for long-term relocation and/or rebuilding of homes and businesses. Almost thirty thousand victims from Katrina are already in Houston, and local businesses have begun drives to collect supplies and employment opportunities for hurricane victims. This in less than a week, and Houston is hardly the only city doing this. Not that you will hear it from the MSM.

There's more to say, but for now that's quite enough.

1 comment:

Sue Bob said...

Thank you for this timeline. It puts things into perspective--as opposed to the histrionics of Geraldo on Fox tonight.