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article imageFailures Lead to Preventable New Orleans Hurricane Tragedy (Part 2)

By Carol Forsloff     Mar 17, 2009 in Environment
It was all preventable. More than 1,100 lives, billions of dollars worth of damage, and hundreds of people missing. Storm victims struggle with trauma memories, physical and mental health issues; and it was all preventable.
This is part two in a five-part series on what went wrong during and before Hurricane Katrina. See part one here.
After reviewing records and speaking with high-level members of independent investigation teams, I have found a pattern that points to mishaps at every level during and following the events of Hurricane Katrina. The pattern led to massive flooding that destroyed lives and property and left a city submerged in debt, still riddled with fear and anger, and continuing to struggle to maintain dignity in the midst of overwhelming despair and degradation. And it was all preventable.
The storm season is just months away, and every year hurricane predictions are closely followed by the people of Louisiana and national hurricane centers. They are followed even more now since the famous Katrina storm. Recent details of the storm and its consequences have emerged that tell us how vital it is that people know the critical events involved in the destruction of what was once the crown jewel of Louisiana and one of the most important port cities in the United States. The time is now to make these issues known. This on line series will continue in segments, as the information unfolds, because this story is important not just to the State of Louisiana but to the nation and to other vulnerable areas. It is also important to the victims and their families still mourning for losses that can never be recovered and pain that can't be forgotten.
There are those who ask the question why folks should bother finding how and why things happened. They advise New Orleans people to just clean up the mess and keep going, some in the most extreme ways blaming the victims. After all Louisiana's motto is Laissez les bons temps roulez! (let the good times roll) But without finding out the source of the problems, less will be done to correct them. Furthermore when folks outside of New Orleans simply say that the people in the great city knew and chose to live there, and therefore bear part of the blame, votes that lead to funds don't happen. Attitude is everything when it comes to who gets money and when.
Where did the problems begin? Some say it began with Louisiana and New Orleans history, the choice to build a city on river systems and marshy land. Others say it was the unique building of the city and its levee protections from potential floods that was done in fits and starts, yet with poor planning and organization at various intervals that led to a crisis.
Research reflects that numerous factors contributed to the terrible flooding of New Orleans and its ultimate tragedy. What the facts don't show are people who knew the levees would breach, fail and leave them vulnerable. Instead the facts reveal a confluence of powerful people at the highest levels of the government who struggled not to correct but not to do then cover up. Misrepresentations, targeted threats on key personnel involved in the follow-up combined with political chaos and poor application of engineering principles make it critical that the levee failures be studied and for proper review to take place. A very big reason for doing that is clearly because how the United States handled its biggest disaster, that of Hurricane Katrina, may predict how it might handle even bigger ones in the event of terrorist strikes or major cataclysmic events occurring from combination of man-made errors and environmental problems.
To understand how the problems with the levees occurred and the issues involved in the breaching of them as well as the over topping, we must look at some of the history first, beginning with how a city was originally selected to be located near the Gulf. The following is an encapsulation in brief.
New Orleans was founded by Sieur de Bienville in 1718 on a land mass that at the time was estimated at 10 feet above sea level. At the juncture of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi was an ideal place for a port city. By the 1830's New Orleans was the third most populated city in the nation following the Louisiana purchase and expansion. As the city expanded, whites built their homes along the boulevards and avenues, blacks on the small, narrow streets.
Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina was the worst of the 2005 hurricane season, hitting New Orleans the hardest. Katrina was also one of the top five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history
Photo by Klobetime (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Early on people knew they faced storms, so private landowners built levees out of earthen berms for protection that sometimes didn't work. The first major hurricane after the town was built occurred in 1722 when New Orleans was virtually wiped out. In 1909 a powerful hurricane hit the area while politicians bickered and levee builders dawdled. Some things, it appears, never change.
The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, put together in the early 1900's for transportation purposes, was man-made, cutting through coastal marshlands. This brought concern about the erosion of the wetlands and the ecosystem dying, but greed trumped protecting lives, and serious hurricane protection was left for tomorrows that never came.
Two million Louisiana residents live in coastal parishes. The City of New Orleans is sinking at three feet per century. Prior to Hurricane Katrina most experts reported that a hurricane in New Orleans ranked in possible disaster consequences with an earthquake in California or a terrorist attack in New York City. One would think protection of New Orleans, therefore, to be critical especially since there have been major warnings, like the 1927 flood upon which the book Rising Tide was based and Hurricane Betsy in 1965. After Betsy's damage the Army Corps of Engineers built up the levees. There were no big hurricane floods for 40 years, but the project of rebuilding for a level higher than a Category 3 storm was not scheduled to be completed until 2015 despite the fact that the original estimate declared it would take 13 years.
History plays a part in the Hurricane Katrina crisis that occurred, for certainly wet marshy lands and river junctions combined with great storm potential require solid protection for people to inhabit New Orleans. Certain places in the New Orleans area, according to some, may not be inhabitable even though it isn't popular or politically correct to say so. Still the worries had always been the topping of the levees, not the breaching of them. That was left to Hurricane Katrina, and the major cause of the floods that swept the city, making it the nation's greatest disaster to date. And it was all preventable.
This series was originally planned to be three segments, but will require more because new information continues to become available. Part 3 will deal with levees and details of the flood. Part Four will discuss the politics involved, including corruptions and machinations within different organizations, including the highest levels of government. Further sequences will talk about the personal tragedies and consequences to the people of New Orleans financially and emotionally. Finally the series will examine present and future predictions based upon what is known at present. Additional source materials including interviews will be provided for some elements of the introductory articles and the expanding data.
This story is written for people, not for archives or dusty books. It is meant to be an active, living one where folks who lived through the tragedy can give voice to their feelings and their knowledge. Victims, professionals and parties of interest are invited to contribute their stories, memories and information to this series so that it becomes an evolving and participatory event under the journalist's traditional directive to educate, inform and hold power to account. It is my strong belief that serving people is the journalist's
highest order of business and to that extent we serve each other.
Check out Part One of this series at this link: New Orleans Folk Shocked and Dismayed Over Levee Lies
Additional References:
Heerden, Ivor Van, The Storm, Viking Penguin, 2006
Brinkley, Douglas, The Great Deluge, Harper Collins, 2006
Horne, Jed, Breach of Faith, Random House, 2006
Madre, Louie E. Lee, Incomplete Manuscript, A History of New Orleans, 1983
Talk of the Nation, NPR, 9/12/05
The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System, What Went Wrong and Why, Am. Soc. of Engineers Report, ASCE 2007
More about Hurricane Katrina, Flooding new orleans, Disaster
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