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Will we be safe from future natural disasters?

With hurricane season about to make landfall in just over a week, one scientist is wondering if we will learn from the tragic lessons taught by Katrina. Dr. Ivor van Heerden was at the center of the storm, so to speak, as co-founder and deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. In his new book, “The Storm,” he explains what went wrong and why we must heed scientific warnings, now, in order to prevent repeating the past. Here's an excerpt.

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Religion that God our Father accepts as
pure and faultless is this:
To look after orphans and widows in their distress
And to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
James 1:27

The Storm
Introduction
Disaster, Tragedy, Failure — and Hope
By eight o’clock Monday night, August 29 — almost fourteen hours after the landfall of Hurricane Katrina — even I was tempted to join in the back slapping at the state’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Baton Rouge. Using every available megaphone, I’d been warning for years about the inevitable catastrophe that would befall New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana: a total drowning. So had all of my colleagues and many other scientists who had studied the lay of the land. It was bound to happen, sooner or later. It could have happened with Katrina, if she had tracked just twenty miles to the west and on a northwesterly course. Earlier studies using our now famous storm-surge computer model at LSU had showed that hypothetical catastrophe clearly. On Katrina’s actual course, our model still predicted the flooding in New Orleans and in the parishes to the east and south, but most of these areas had flooded before, never disastrously. They could be drained quickly, with minimal permanent damage. On Monday night, this is what we thought.

Communications were suspect. After the National Weather Service office in Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, issued its warning at 8:14 a.m. Monday morning of a breach in the levee along the Industrial Canal, that office lost power. The office in Mobile, Alabama, then took over, but apparently the warning got lost. At the EOC, we knew that the Mississippi coastline to the east would have been essentially wiped out, but here’s the blunt truth: Our attention was focused on New Orleans, and not simply because we lived and worked in Louisiana. Most — I would hope all — of the professionals in the center were aware of New Orleans’s particular peril, and some had devoted a fair portion of their careers to studying the city’s vulnerability, partly because it is a fascinating subject with life-and-death consequences. And now the Crescent City had apparently managed to keep its head above water once again; it would live to sweat out the next big storm. So it seemed at eight o’ clock Monday night, and I was packing up to leave when a young staffer walked into our cubicle at the EOC and said he’d just picked up a call from a nursing home that had taken in two feet of water, and it had risen half a foot in just the last hour.

Fresh or saline? That was my first thought, because it’s always the question about unwanted water in New Orleans. If it’s fresh, it’s rainwater — a normal flood; if salty, Lake Pontchartrain (which is actually brackish), and this might mean a serious breach of the lakefront levee system on the northern side of the city. We didn’t have the results of the taste test in the nursing home, we didn’t even know where that home was, but surely the Army Corps of Engineers, which had built the levees and whose cubicle in the EOC was right next to ours, would have known about a lakeside breach and somehow been able to spread the word. On the other hand, Katrina and the heavy rain were long gone. Why the rapidly rising water now? The tiniest little chill ran up my spine. But I had nothing to pin it on and no good way to find out much more, so at 9:30 p.m. I hit the road to join my family at our home twenty miles east of Baton Rouge. I had no idea what had happened out there in New Orleans.

But then, I did know. Driving home. Thinking again about that suddenly rising water. How could rainfall runoff possibly cause that flooding? It couldn’t. There must have been a new breach in a levee. But surely the Corps would know about it! Surely their people and the local levee boards were monitoring every foot of the 350 miles of levees that protected the city from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. But then, why had the Corps’s staffers said nothing?

When the worst had been expected in New Orleans over the weekend, numerous officials had warned people who weren’t leaving town to be sure they had an ax handy, because they were going to need it to chop their way out of the attic. They were trying to scare folks. Now their warning scared me. If there had been a major levee breach anywhere, thousands and thousands of people were going to bed in the dark, thinking the worst was over, and they would wake up in the middle of the night to a horrible discovery and be forced into those attics.

At my home, all was relatively secure — a few trees down, one close call, but no roof damage. With no electricity, land phone, cable, or Internet, with only spotty cell coverage, the isolation was almost complete — and welcome. I’d finally be able to sleep. But I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about those people scrambling out of the rising water — if they could scramble. The call had come from a nursing home. How were those folks going to scramble anywhere? Did the able-bodied have axes? Could they wield them? And would the attic be high enough? Would the roof be high enough? In the Lower Ninth Ward and parts of St. Bernard Parish, maybe not. Lying in bed, I envisioned the deaths of thousands.

I did finally fall asleep, and it was almost noon when I got in the trusty Xterra to drive back to the EOC. The sun was shining, the air was calm. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the nursing home report was some kind of fluke. I turned on the radio for the latest — and my heart sank for good. Something terrible had happened with the levees on Monday, and no one had told us. Water was pouring into the city. Should I have turned around the night before and returned to the EOC? I’ll ask myself that question for the rest of my life and reconcile my failure to do so with the knowledge that Monday night was much too late to spread the alarm — because there was no way to spread the alarm. Battery-powered radios could pick up a few channels, including locally famous WWL, but otherwise the city had been in the dark. With no electricity, everyone would have gone to bed.

As I drove to Baton Rouge, I began getting angry. As the days advanced, I got angrier. New Orleans had not even been the bull’s-eye for this storm, which also had turned out to be less powerful than expected. Nevertheless, much of the city was going under, with the whole world watching in disbelief. How could the United States of America have left one of its crown jewel cities so vulnerable to a preventable disaster that I and many others had been warning about for years? How could this nation have been so unprepared for the aftermath? Hurricane Katrina was both a natural disaster and a systemic failure on the part of our society. Together, they produced tragedy.

This book is about both the storm and the failure — and the tragedy. I am a disaster science specialist and hurricane researcher who tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. I rarely hold my tongue. I rarely see any good reason to, and certainly not in this case. As a scientist, I champion a reality-based view of the world, old-fashioned as that may be, and marshy, swampy coastal Louisiana is the very definition of an inherently vulnerable landscape. It has always been susceptible to the ravages of hurricane winds, storm surges, and the invasive activities of a certain species of mammal (and I don’t mean nutria). Large neighborhoods in New Orleans had flooded during Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and eighty-one folks had drowned. But then the Army Corps of Engineers beefed up the levees and there had been no other major flooding from storm surges in forty years — just the fairly regular flooding from the torrential rain the city expects several times a year. People had let down their guard. After all, New Orleans is — or was — the city that care had forgotten anyway. On the other hand, some of the local geographers and oceanographers and engineers and the like — you know, the pocket-protector crowd, as we were known before computers — started to suspect that Louisiana was not only more vulnerable to devastation than its citizens wanted to admit, but far more vulnerable than it had been, because the wetlands that buffer the inland zones, including New Orleans, were disappearing at an alarming rate. Restoring these coastal wetlands was one key to long-term alleviation of surge flooding, but could the state pull off such a complex endeavor requiring billions of dollars and the total commitment of the citizens.

In 1994, when I took over as head of the state’s coastal restoration program, I decided to find out. My abiding faith was simple (and it still is): The catalyst to compromise is a thorough understanding of the science. Within eighteen months, however, I was gone and our new, comprehensive initiative was dead — details forthcoming, but which I can summarize here as the petty politics of junior bureaucrats who had the ear of the official decision makers and of politicians bearing grudges. Our plans for the vital coastal restoration fell apart, but we had to keep trying.

Excerpted from “The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina — the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist,” by Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan. Copyright © 2006, Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan. All rights reserved. Published by No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.

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