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Context of 'October 2004: National Geographic Poses Hypothetical Scenario of Hurricane Hitting New Orleans'

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In a Scientific American article titled “Drowning New Orleans,” journalist Mark Fischetti warns that a “major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands. Human activities along the Mississippi River have dramatically increased the risk, and now only massive reengineering of southeastern Louisiana can save the city.” [Scientific American, 10/2001]

Entity Tags: Mark Fischetti

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

In “Keeping its head above water: New Orleans faces doomsday scenario,” Houston Chronicle science reporter Eric Berger says New Orleans will be devastated by a major hurricane. According to scientists, “[i]n the face of an approaching storm,… the city’s less-than-adequate evacuation routes would strand 250,000 people or more, and probably kill one of 10 left behind as the city drowned under 20 feet of water. Thousands of refugees could land in Houston. Economically, the toll would be shattering… .” [Houston Chronicle, 12/1/2001]

Entity Tags: Eric Berger

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Efforts by a group of scientists at the LSU Hurricane Center to develop a computer model that can predict the public health impacts of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans (see (April 2002)) are hindered by the group’s relatively small $3.7 million budget. “The earthquake community gets over $100 million a year for research from the federal government through the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program that was started in the 1970s, while the federal investment for hurricane and wind damage is only less than $5 million—even though hurricanes cause more dollar damage and kill far more people year in and year out than earthquakes do,” says Marc Levitan, director of the LSU Hurricane Center. Notwithstanding its limited funding, by early 2002, the “computer model… has 60 layers of information for such a disastrous scenario, and the Hurricane Center is still accumulating information.” [Advocate (Baton Rouge), 4/21/2002; Advocate (Baton Rouge), 1/23/2003]

Entity Tags: Marc Levitan, LSU Hurricane Center

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

The New Orleans Times Picayune publishes a five-part series, titled “Washing Away,” which examines what will happen when Southern Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Part two of the series, titled the “The Big One,” begins with a stark warning: “It’s a matter of when, not if. Eventually a major hurricane will hit New Orleans head on, instead of being just a close call. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.” Such a storm, the article reports, “would turn the city and the east bank of Jefferson Parish into a lake as much as 30 feet deep, fouled with chemicals and waste from ruined septic systems, businesses and homes. Such a flood could trap hundreds of thousands of people in buildings and in vehicles. At the same time, high winds and tornadoes would tear at everything left standing.” John Clizbe, national vice president for disaster services with the American Red Cross, tells the newspaper that between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die in such a scenario. Another expert, Joseph Suhayda, a Louisiana State University engineer, predicts that that New Orleans’ levee system could fail in such a storm. “It’s not something that’s expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees [break], the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing. The most continuous barrier is the south levee, along the river. That’s 25 feet high, so you’ll see the water pile up on the river levee.” [Times-Picayune, 6/2002; Reuters, 9/2/2005]

Entity Tags: Joseph Suhayda, John Clizbe

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

“The City in a Bowl,” a PBS “NOW With Bill Moyers” program, explores what could happen to New Orleans if it were struck by a major hurricane. The program explains that the shield against damage provided by the area’s wetlands “is breaking apart.… Scientists say if this shield keeps crumbling over the next few decades, then it won’t take a giant storm to cause a disaster. A much weaker, more common kind of hurricane could devastate New Orleans.” Walter Maestri, emergency management director in Jefferson Parish, envisions a scenario where New Orleans “completely fills. And we’ve now got the entire community underwater some 20, 30 feet underwater. Everything is lost.” Jay Combe of the US Army Corps of Engineers says he has been assembling a doomsday manual for such a crisis. He suggests that if a big hurricane hits new Orleans, “I think of a terrible disaster. I think of 100,000 [deaths], and that’s just my guess.” The segment concludes, “If a monster storm strikes New Orleans, this city might never come back.” [PBS, 9/2/2002] The content of this segment will be repackaged and broadcast on National Public Radio later this month. [National Public Radio, 9/2002]

Entity Tags: Jay Combe, Walter Maestri

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Innovative Emergency Management (IEM), an emergency management and homeland security consulting firm, announces that the Department of Homeland Security has awarded it a $500,000 contract to lead the development of a catastrophic hurricane disaster plan (see September 23, 2004) for Louisiana and the city of New Orleans. Announcing the award, IEM Director of Homeland Security Wayne Thomas notes that “the greater New Orleans area is one of the nation’s most vulnerable locations for hurricane landfall. Given this area’s vulnerability, unique geographic location and elevation, and troubled escape routes, a plan that facilitates a rapid and effective hurricane response and recovery is critical.” [Innovative Emergency Management, 6/3/2004; Insurance Journal, 6/9/2004; US Congress, 9/9/2005]

Entity Tags: US Department of Homeland Security, Innovative Emergency Management

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

FEMA sponsors a 5-day exercise rehearsing for a mock storm, named “Pam,” that destroys over half a million buildings in New Orleans and forces the evacuation of a million residents. The drill is conducted by Innovative Emergency Management (IEM). [Associated Press, 7/24/2004; Times-Picayune, 7/24/2004; Knight Ridder, 9/1/2005] It is attended by about 250 emergency officials and involves more than 40 federal, state, and local agencies, as well as volunteer organizations. As part of the scenario, about 200,000 people fail to heed evacuation orders. Pam slams directly into New Orleans bringing 120 mph winds, 20 inches of rain, 14 tornadoes, and a massive storm surge that overtops levees flooding the city with 20 feet of water containing a toxic mix of corpses, chemicals, and human waste. Eighty percent of the city’s buildings are damaged. Survivors crawl to the rooftops to wait for help, but rescue workers are impeded by impassable roads. [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 7/23/2004; Knight Ridder, 9/1/2005; New York Times, 9/1/2005; MSNBC, 9/2/2005; Associated Press, 9/9/2005] The flooding results in a massive number of casualties and leaves large portions of southeast Louisiana uninhabitable for more than a year. [Associated Press, 9/9/2005] At the conclusion of the exercise, Ron Castleman, regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, states: “We made great progress this week in our preparedness efforts. Disaster response teams developed action plans in critical areas such as search and rescue, medical care, sheltering, temporary housing, school restoration and debris management. These plans are essential for quick response to a hurricane but will also help in other emergencies.” [Reuters, 9/2/2005] As a result of the exercise, officials come to realize how difficult it will be to evacuate the city’s population in the event of a real hurricane. They expect that only a third of the population will be able leave before the storm hits, in part due to the fact that up to 100,000 residents live in households without a car. When asked how many people might die in such a storm, FEMA spokesman David Passey hesitates before stating, “We would see casualties not seen in the United States in the last century.” [Times-Picayune, 7/20/2004] In December 2004, a 412-page draft report summarizing the exercise will be completed with detailed predictions of what the government should expect in the event that a major hurricane strikes New Orleans.
Predictions - Flood waters would surge over levees, creating “a catastrophic mass casualty/mass evacuation” and leaving drainage pumps crippled for up to six months. “It will take over one year to re-enter areas most heavily impacted,” the report predicts. More than 600,000 houses and 6,000 businesses would be affected, and more than two-thirds of them would be destroyed. Almost a quarter-million children would have no school. “All 40 medical facilities in the impacted area [would be] isolated and useless.” Casualties would be staggering: 61,290 deaths, 187,862 injured, and 196,395 ill. A half million people would be made homeless by the storm. Storm “refugees” would be housed at college campuses, military barracks, hotels, travel trailers, recreational vehicles, private homes, cottages, churches, Boy Scout camps, and cruise ships. [Associated Press, 9/9/2005]
Recommendations - “Federal support must be provided in a timely manner to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate severe damage. This may require mobilizing and deploying assets before they are requested via normal (National Response Plan) protocols.” [Associated Press, 9/9/2005]
Top officials briefed - Ivor van Heerden, the Louisiana State University hurricane researcher who ran the exercise, reports that a “White House staffer was briefed on the exercise,” and thus, “there is now a far greater awareness in the federal government about the consequences of storm surges.” [Louisiana State University, 2005] After the Hurricane Katrina Disaster, van Heerden will recall in an interview with MSNBC that the federal government didn’t take the exercise seriously. “Those FEMA officials wouldn’t listen to me. Those Corps of Engineers people giggled in the back of the room when we tried to present information.” When Heerden recommended that tent cities be prepared for displaced residents, “their response… was: ‘Americans don’t live in tents’ and that was about it.” [MSNBC, 9/2/2005]
Follow-up - Another exercise is scheduled the following year, but it’s cancelled when its funding is cut (see 2005).

Entity Tags: Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ivor Van Heerden, Ron Castleman

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

The Washington Post publishes a front page story examining what might happen if Hurricane Ivan, or any other major hurricane, hits New Orleans. The article cites numerous experts who agree that such an event is inevitable and will be a disaster. Walter Maestri, emergency management director in Jefferson Parish, warns that as many as 50,000 people could drown if a Category 4 hurricane makes a landing on Southern Louisiana’s shores. Windell Curole, director of the South Lafourche Levee District, tells the newspaper: “I’m terrified. I’m telling you, we’ve got no elevation. This isn’t hyperbole. The only place I can compare us to is Bangladesh.” Gregory W. Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University, says, “I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but the doomsday scenario is going to happen eventually. I’ll stake my professional reputation on it.” [Washington Post, 9/15/2004] Other articles at the same time also point out the danger. For instance, on September 14, the Associated Press publishes the story,“Direct Hit by Ivan Could Sink New Orleans” which discusses a worst-case scenario where a direct strike could leave the city “deep in a stew of sewage, industrial chemicals and fire ants, and the inundation could last for weeks…” Ivor van Heerden, director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Public Health Center, states, “My fear is, if this storm passes (without a major disaster), everybody forgets about it until next year, when it could be even worse because we’ll have even less wetlands.” [Associated Press, 9/14/2004] The Dallas Morning News publishes an article giving similar warnings. [Dallas Morning News, 9/14/2004]

Entity Tags: Windell Curole, Gregory W. Stone, Hurricane Ivan, Walter Maestri

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

A National Geographic article hypothesizes a scenario of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans. “[T]he storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party. The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it. Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. When did this calamity happen? It hasn’t—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.” Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State University, says, “I don’t think people realize how precarious we are.” The article further notes, “The chances of such a storm hitting New Orleans in any given year are slight, but the danger is growing. Climatologists predict that powerful storms may occur more frequently this century, while rising sea level from global warming is putting low-lying coasts at greater risk. ‘It’s not if it will happen,’ says University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland. ‘It’s when.’ Yet just as the risks of a killer storm are rising, the city’s natural defenses are quietly melting away. From the Mississippi border to the Texas state line, Louisiana is losing its protective fringe of marshes and barrier islands faster than any place in the US.” [National Geographic, 10/2004]

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

In a National Hazards Observer article titled “What if Hurricane Ivan Had Not Missed New Orleans?,” University of New Orleans professor Shirley Laska warns that a Category 4 hurricane hitting New Orleans would be one of the greatest disasters ever to hit the US, with estimated costs exceeding $100 billion. According to Laska, in the aftermath of the hurricane, it would take nine weeks to dewater the city, and “national authorities would be scrambling to build tent cities to house the hundreds of thousands of refugees unable to return to their homes and without other relocation options.” [Natural Hazards Observer, 11/2004]

Entity Tags: Shirley Laska

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Speaking before his colleagues in the House of Representatives, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-LA) expresses concern about what would happen if a large hurricane were to hit New Orleans. “What would have happened if last September, Hurricane Ivan had veered 40 miles to the west, devastating the city of New Orleans? One likely scenario would have had a tsunami-like 30-foot wall of water hitting the city, causing thousands of deaths and $100 billion in damage. The city has always been at risk because of its low-lying location, but that risk has been increased because of rising sea levels, groundwater pumping and the erosion of coastal Louisiana. Twenty-four square miles of wetland disappear every year, since the 1930s an area one and a half times the size of Rhode Island washed away. Considering the reaction of the American public to the loss of a dozen people in the recent mud slides in California, it is hard to imagine what would happen if a disaster of that magnitude hit the United States. The experience of [the December 2004 tsunami that hit] Southeast Asia should convince us all of the urgent need for congressional action to prevent wide-scale loss of life and economic destruction at home and abroad. Prevention and planning will pay off.” [US Congress, 1/26/2005]

Entity Tags: Earl Blumenauer

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

A Popular Science article predicts that New Orleans could be completely submerged if hit by a Category 5 hurricane. Scott Kiser, a tropical-cyclone program manager for the National Weather Service, calls New Orleans the one city in the US and possibly the world that would sustain the most catastrophic damage from such a hurricane. He points out that the levees need not fail; a storm surge caused by high winds creating huge waves would quickly drown the city. John Hall of the US Army Corps of Engineers similarly calls the city “the most vulnerable major city to hurricanes.” The article notes that “New Orleans has nearly completed its Hurricane Protection Project, a $740-million plan led by [Al] Naomi [Corps project manager for the New Orleans District] to ring the city with levees that could shield residents from up to Category 3 storm surges.” The Army Corps is considering a new levee system capable of holding back a surge from a Category 5 hurricane, but it “is still in the early planning stages; it may be decades before the new barriers are completed.” [Popular Science, 4/2005]

Entity Tags: Scott Kiser, John Hall, Al Naomi

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) reports that Katrina, now a Category 2 hurricane, continues to move west-southwest away from Florida, and is expected to gradually turn west on Saturday. Models have now shifted significantly westward. The NHC states that the “projected landfall is still about 72 hours away.” (In fact, Katrina will make landfall in only 55 hours.) The NHC expects that Katrina will strengthen over the next 24 hours, becoming a Category 3—or major—hurricane later today, and may be a Category 4 hurricane at landfall. Other aspects of the NHC Advisory include:
bullet Location: 24.8 N, 82.9 W (approximately 70 miles west-northwest of Key West, Florida)
bullet Direction and Speed: West-southwest at near 8 mph
bullet Maximum Sustained Winds: Near 100 mph with higher gusts
bullet Estimated Central Pressure: 965 mb
bullet Size: Hurricane force winds extend outward from the center up to 25 miles; and tropical storm force winds extend up to 85 miles
bullet Probability that in the next 69 hours, Katrina’s eye will pass within 75 miles of:
bullet Panama City, FL: 17 percent
bullet Gulfport, MS: 16 percent
bullet New Orleans, LA: 15 percent [National Hurricane Center, 8/26/2005; National Hurricane Center, 8/26/2005; National Hurricane Center, 8/26/2005]

Entity Tags: Hurricane Katrina, National Hurricane Center

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

CBS News reports that new models indicate that Katrina may shift west towards New Orleans. Noting that New Orleans is “among one of the most vulnerable hurricane places, if not the most vulnerable in the country,” the reporter reminds viewers that although hurricanes generally weaken before hitting land, “Hurricane Camille didn’t in ‘69; there’s no guarantee that this one will. This could very well be a Category 4.” [CBS News, 8/26/2005] ABC News contains a similar report tonight, nothing that Katrina could hit near New Orleans and be a catastrophic hurricane. [ABC, 8/26/2005] MSNBC reports that four out of five computer models indicate that Katrina will hit between New Orleans and the Mississippi-Alabama Border. [MSNBC, 8/26/2005]

Entity Tags: Hurricane Camille, Hurricane Katrina

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Max Mayfield, Director of the National Hurricane Center, warns the Times-Picayune that Hurricane Katrina poses an imminent danger to New Orleans: “The guidance we get and common sense and experience suggests this storm is not done strengthening.… This is really scary. This is not a test, as your governor said earlier today. This is the real thing.” Katrina “is a very, very dangerous hurricane, and capable of causing a lot of damage and loss of life if we’re not careful.” “This thing is like Hurricane Opal,” Mayfield says, referring to the 1995 Category 3 hurricane that hit the Florida panhandle. “We’re seeing 12-foot seas along the Louisiana coast already.” [Times-Picayune Blog, 8/27/2005]

Entity Tags: Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Opal, Max Mayfield

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Around 7 pm this evening, LSU Hurricane Center scientists share their latest prediction models with emergency officials at the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge. On the giant screen looming over the officials, scientists post the sum of all fears: New Orleans will go under. Everyone knows what that means: a major water rescue of untold thousands. [Time, 9/4/2005] The model predicts that Katrina’s storm surge may weaken and overtop New Orleans’ levees, causing massive flooding of Plaquemines Parish, New Orleans’ 9th Ward, Michoud area, and Mid-City, as well as large parts of Slidell. [Schleifstein, 8/27/2005; Daily Advertiser, 8/27/2005] The Times-Picayune will publish the projected storm surge map the next morning. [Times-Picayune, 8/28/2005 pdf file] Reportedly, the Center also e-mails their modeling results to state and federal agencies, including the National Hurricane Center. [MSNBC, 9/9/2005]

Entity Tags: LSU Hurricane Center, National Emergency Operations Center, National Hurricane Center

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

“Katrina is in the midst of a truly historic rapid deepening phase… [and] is now the sixth strongest hurricane ever measured in the Atlantic,” states Jeff Matthews, meteorologist with the Weather Underground. “At the rate Katrina is deepening, she could easily be the third or fourth most intense hurricane ever, later today.” Katrina’s “winds are likely to increase to ‘catch up’ to the rapidly falling pressure, and could approach the all-time record of 190 mph set in Camille and Allen. Winds of this level will create maximum storm surge heights over 25 feet, and this storm surge will affect an area at least double the area wiped clean by Camille, which was roughly half the size of Katrina. Katrina has continued to expand in size, and is now a huge hurricane like Ivan. Damage will be very widespread and extreme if Katrina can maintain Category 5 strength at landfall.” Masters warns that, “Given that the storm is so large and is already pushing up a huge storm surge wave in front of it, even a weakened Category 3 Katrina hitting at low tide will cause an incredible amount of damage. A stretch of coast 170 miles long will experience hurricane force winds, given the current radius of hurricane force winds around the storm. A direct hit on New Orleans in this best-case scenario may still be enough to flood the city, resulting in heavy loss of life and $30 billion or more in damage.” [Masters, 8/28/2005]

Entity Tags: Hurricane Camille, Jeff Matthews, Hurricane Allen, Hurricane Katrina

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

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