So I walk out onto the street. Where am I? Bripi wonders. Where is Bripi? I wonder. It's hard to be findable in a new city. One car turns the corner ahead of me and I think, momentarily, that a massive stroke of luck has beset us, but this isn't the case. And then another car appears, and it is. Our greeting-hug is a little bit more like a running pounce; the sort of enthusiastic hello's that make twenty-some odd hours in a tight van seem so very worthwhile.

A few minutes later I'm making introductions and we've been invited on a tour of the Lower Ninth. I was strangely drawn to Our School at Blair Grocery—possibly because it reminds me of Haiti somehow—and feel compelled to return. Plus, how often does one have the opportunity to explore that part of the city. I hop in with Bripi and we begin trailing the van, though we lose it while stopping for gas along the way and end up having to feel our way back through rocky streets. Being late isn't a problem, though: OSBG has a porch.

We move from the porch to the van, loading it beyond its safe capacity, and take off rumbling down the streets.
The first thing we pass are these houses built by Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation foundation. A small number of these—maybe 20 or less—were built after the hurricane to replace homes that were lost. They're completely green: sustainable materials, solar powered, insulated, et cetera. They're also an excellent example of inappropraite design and failure to assess the needs and abilities of the community: EWB 101.

First off, from a design prospecitve, those stilts aren't high enough to actually protect the home in case of water (according to our guide): it was 12' deep in the Lower Ninth. Secondly, who could afford such a house?

The answer is that no one in the Lower Ninth could, so the houses are financed partly through Pitt's donations, partly through mortgages, and partly through loans. Trying not to generalise, but the literacy rate here is low and the people are poor: these sorts of financial manipulations are not something they've generally worked with before. Evictions and repossessions have happened, some homes have been bought by wealthier people from outside the Lower Ninth—the word is gentrification. These are not helping to restore the original community.

Let's talk a little more about Katrina. It originally formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 02005, and became a tropical storm on the morning of August 24th. It became a hurricane just two hours before making land-fall in Florida on the morning of August 25th. It degraded over Florida, but then regained hurricane status an hour after entering the Gulf of Mexico.

There, moving over warm waters, it grew from a Category 3 to a Category 5 hurricane within nine hours. An eyewall replacement cycle then began and the storm weakened. These cycles are pretty awesome. All (or at least the vast majority) of hurricanes have an eye. As the storm intensifies, a new eye may form around this, eventually killing off the first eye. This was first observed in the 50's and 60's and thought to be a rare event; it was also observed to correlate with a decrease in storm intensity. This led to a thought: if you could induce a hurricane to form a second eyewall, you could weaken it. To this end, General Electric, NOAA, the US Army Signal Corps, the Office of Naval Research, and the US Air Force got together through Project Cirrus and Project Stormfury. The idea was to do cloud seeding by dropping or launching silver iodide from airplanes. But because of the potential to redirect storms, this could only be attempted in hurricanes about a day out from land. Naturally, the storms still within reach of the airplanes and had to have well-formed eyewalls. The net effect was that it was very hard to find storms to experiment on.

Ultimately, it was discovered that about 50% of hurricanes underwent eyewall replacement naturally. It is a tenant of science to only admit testable hypotheses and, if something happens 50% of the time anyway, it's difficult to see if your treatment is making a difference. Especially if your subjects are always different and you only get one every couple of years. So the project was cancelled.

Katrina, with double eyewall

During the eyewall replacement, Katrina doubled in size. Afterwards, it reached Category 5 again with winds of 175MPH and an eye pressure of 902mbar, the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record (a record broken later that season by both Rita and Wilma), and the strongest-ever hurricane in the Gulf (broken by Rita later that season). Katrina, at Category 3, made land-fall on August 29th with winds of 125MPH near Buras-Triumph, Lousiana with storms surges of in excess of 14 feet. Hurricane-force winds extended 120MPH from the storm's center. After passing over the Delta, Katrina hit land again near the Mississippi border with 120MPH winds, still at Category 3, accompanied by a 27-foot storm surge—the highest and most extensive in the documented history of the United States. 8–10 inch rains fell over a large swath of the state. In Slidell, the rainfall was the highest ever recorded in the state at 15 inches. The storm surge and rainfall raised Lake Pontchartrain, causing flooding on the northeastern shore.

Katrina maintained hurricane strength as it moved inland for 150 miles. Its remnants were still distinguishable near the eastern Great Lakes on August 31, where they merged with a front and moved northeast to affect eastern Canada.

Until the 27th of August, the hurricane was expected to die out around the Florida panhandle. On the 27th, the predictions were changed to indicate Mississippi and Lousiana. At this point, the probability of a direct hit on New Orleans was at 29% in computer simulations; storm surges predicted to be 28 feet. On August 28th, with the size of the hurricane becoming apparent (recall that it quickly doubled in size), warnings were issued to most of the Gulf Coast, including this one to New Orleans:

000
WWUS74 KLIX 281550
NPWLIX

URGENT — WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA
1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28, 2005

...DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED...

.HURRICANE KATRINA...A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED
STRENGTH...RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.

MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS...PERHAPS LONGER. AT
LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL
FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL...LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY
DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.

THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL.
PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD
FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE
BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE...INCLUDING SOME
WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.

HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY...A
FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT.

AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD...AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH
AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES
AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE
ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS...PETS...AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE
WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.

POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS...AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN
AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING
INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.

THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY
THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING...BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW
CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE
KILLED.

AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEAR
HURRICANE FORCE...OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE...ARE
CERTAIN WITHIN THE NEXT 12 TO 24 HOURS.

ONCE TROPICAL STORM AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS ONSET...DO NOT VENTURE
OUTSIDE!


Actual radar of Katrina's landfall

Those who like to decry the weather service as being non-specific and often incorrect, or those who like firm proof before they take precautionary actions may see the above and wonder at it. Indeed, there was no precedent for such a bulletin and it's been described as the most chilling ever issued by the weather service. Its vividness was crediting with motivating larger and earlier evacuations. Louisiana's hurricane evacuation plan called for a three-phase evacuation starting with the coast and moving inwards. Phase I evacuations were supposed to commence 50 hours prior to tropical storm-force winds; New Orleans, part of Phase III, was supposed to begin 30 hours beforehand.

At a news conference on the 28th, just around the time of release of the above bulletin, Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, issued the first-ever mandatory evacuation for the city, saying that Katrina was "a storm that most of us have long feared". At that point several "refuges of last resort", including the Superdome, were established. By August 28, most infrastructure along the Gulf Coast had been shut down, including all Canadian National Railway and Amtrak rail traffic into the evacuation areas. The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport was also closed at some point before the storm.

On August 29th, when Katrina made landfall the eye of the storm passed just to the east of New Orleans city limits, subjecting the city to hours of Category 1–2 strength winds. The storm surge caused 53 levee breaches in Greater New Orleans. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) breached its levees in approximately 20 places, flooding much of east New Orleans, most of Saint Bernard Parish and the East Bank of Plaquemines Parish. The major levee breaches in the city included breaches at the 17th Street Canal levee, the London Avenue Canal, and the wide, navigable Industrial Canal. In all, about 80%% of the city was flooded or submerged. A June 02007 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers claimed that 2/3rds of the flooding was caused by multiple failures of the city's floodwalls.

By October 23, 02005, over 700 bodies had been recovered in New Orleans. Some survivors and evacuees reported seeing dead bodies lying in city streets and floating in still-flooded sections, especially in the east of the city. The advanced state of decomposition of many corpses, some of which were left in the water or sun for days before being collected, hindered efforts by coroners to identify many of the dead.

During the storm, most of the roads into and out of the city were damaged. Only the westbound Crescent City Connection and the Huey P. Long Bridge were left, as large portions of the I-10 Twin Span Bridge traveling eastbound towards Slidell, Louisiana had collapsed. Both the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and the Crescent City Connection only carried emergency traffic.

Downtown, most of the windows blew out of the Hyatt Regency hotel as its glass exterior was sheared off. Observers noted beds flying out of the windows.

Nation-wide, total damages were $81.2–108 billion, twice as much as any previous hurricane. Death-tolls were 2 in Alabama, 14 in Florida, 2 in Georgia, 1 in Kentucky, 238 in Mississippi, 2 in Ohio, and 1,577 in Lousiana. 135 were declared missing. Federal disaster declarations covered 90,000 square miles, an area the size of the United Kingdom.

Many caregiving facilities' evacuation plans called for the use of bus companies and ambulence services. Having waited too long to begin their evacuations, they were unable to find such services and therefore unable to evacuate. Problematically, Governor Blanco of Lousiana never signed an emergency waiver allowing any licensed driver to use buses, which typically require a special license. The picture at left is of flooded buses in New Orleans which could not be used for evacuations because there were too few drivers. Even so, by some estimates 80% of New Orleans' 1.3 million residents evacuated.

Hard-hit St. Bernard Parish was flooded due to breaching of the levees that contained a navigation channel called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) and the breach of the Levee Board designed and built 40 Arpent canal levee. The search for the missing was undertaken by the St. Bernard Fire Department due to the assets of the United States Coast Guard being diverted to New Orleans. Many of the missing in the months after the storm were tracked down by searching flooded homes, tracking credit card records, and visiting homes of family and relatives.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, in St. Bernard Parish, 81% (20,229) of the housing units were damaged. In St. Tammany Parish, 70% (48,792) were damaged and in Placquemines Parish 80% (7,212) were damaged.

Katrina also had a profound impact on the environment. The storm surge caused substantial beach erosion, in some cases completely devastating coastal areas. In Dauphin Island, approximately 90 miles (150 km) to the east of the point where the hurricane made landfall, the sand that comprised the barrier island was transported across the island into the Mississippi Sound, pushing the island towards land. The storm surge and waves from Katrina also obliterated the Chandeleur Islands, which had been affected by Hurricane Ivan the previous year. The US Geological Survey has estimated 217 square miles (560 km2) of land was transformed to water by the hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The lands that were lost were breeding grounds for marine mammals, brown pelicans, turtles, and fish, as well as migratory species such as redhead ducks. Overall, about 20% of the local marshes were permanently overrun by water as a result of the storm.

Hurricane Katrina also caused several large oil spills:

SpillLocationQuantity (Gallons)
Bass EnterprisesCox Bay3,780,000
ShellPilot Town1,050,000
ChevronEmpire991,000
Murphy OilMeraux and Chalmette819,000
Bass EnterprisesPointe à la Hache461,000
ChevronPort Fourchon53,000
Venice Energy ServicesVenice25,000
Shell Pipeline OilNairn13,440
Sundown EnergyWest Potash13,000

Finally, as part of the cleanup effort, the flood waters that covered New Orleans were pumped into Lake Pontchartrain, a process that took 43 days to complete. These residual waters contained a mix of raw sewage, bacteria, heavy metals, pesticides, toxic chemicals, and oil.

We ramble over to the levee where our guide tells us that Katrina didn't strike New Orleans directly, but, rather, Slidell, about thirty miles to the east. He implies that the flooding of the Lower Ninth ninth was an intentional act. That a barge broke through the wall and that the barge had been left where it was with the knowledge that this could or would happen. Our guide didn't mention that three separate groups of experts had investigated and declared that the barge was not responsible for the levee breach. Bloody conspiracy theorists.

We continue our tour by driving to different part of the levee, this time overlooking a flooded bayou. A sign on the road up to it tells us that bayous play an important and natural role in protecting against hurricanes… and that the Mississippi river delta has shrunk by about one-third (~2000 square miles) in recent years. Restoration efforts are on-going.

The rest of our tour involves driving past gutted or missing houses, while our tour guide talks about wealth differentials and social injustices.

Bripi and I leave after the tour, and I'm glad of it. I tell her in the car that I can't imagine spending a whole week on the group's schedule or hanging out with the staff at Blair, and their biases, both real and imagined.




Check if this is a private message just for Richard: