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Hard to Read, but Worth the Effort
on June 6, 2006
Van Heerden is a civil engineer and LSU professor, actively involved in New Orleans disaster planning, and a resident of the New Orleans area. He (and others) had warned about possible deadly consequences prior to Katrina, and probably dwells too much in "The Storm" on those computer models and discussions. Nonetheless, he clearly makes his point that human errors made Katrina much more serious than it could have been.
An early interesting point was that per the Stafford Act of 10/00, once the President declares a national emergency, the federal government is in charge - thus, there should not have been any question about leadership. Another important point is that FEMA staffers refused to consider emergency Army assistance in erecting tent facilities for the displaced and provision of eg. health services - possibly a major benefit.
Van Heerden states that 350 miles of levees protect New Orleans. Those along the Mississippi rise 25 feet above sea level, are 300 feet thick at the base and 100 feet thick at the top - not a source of problems. The rest, however, range from 5 to 18.5 feet above sea level, and involved canals and Lake Ponchatrain. Levee failures totaled 1,050 yards, in total.
Fortunately the La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries prepositioned 6 large and 12 smaller boats at the Jackson Barracks of the local National Guard. This enabled them to quickly begin responding after the levee breaks. The Coast Guard's help was also invaluable - rescuing an estimated 6,000 individuals.
Meanwhile, other units of government were hampered by lack of prepositioning, having to communicate by courier, poor initiative, and turf wars with each other. Airmen at a nearby Air Force base played basketball while residents across the street waited in a Jr. High for assistance. FEMA began shipping emergency supplies Friday after the hurricane, compared to Wal-Mart's start on Sunday prior.
Van Heerden points out that wetlands can help absorb a hurricane's storm surge - however, the area seaward of New Orleans had lost over 500,000 acres of wetlands in the last few decades due to pumping out water (making land available for eg. housing), ship channel dredging, and oil/gas production.
After Katrina the Army Corp. of Engineers began cover-up efforts, claiming that the levees failed because water flowed over them. Considerable evidence by objective reviewers, however, has refuted that claim - they simply were inadequate (eg. primarily sheet steel should have gone down 50 - 65 feet below sea level (and the base of the canals) instead of only 15 feet.
Properly fixing the levees would cost an estimated $30 billion; President Bush has proposed $1.5 billion. The fix would include not only levee rebuilding/strengthening but storm surge gates, moving pumps closer to Lake Ponchatrain, and stopping wetland losses.