The musings of one Andrew Langer - defender of liberty, passionate protector of individual rights, foodie. (Note: Said Musings of Andrew Langer are his own, and the views represented herein are likewise his views, and not the views of any other people, entities, foodstuffs, etc [unless otherwise specifically and explicitly noted].)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Popular Mechanics on Hurricaine Katrina

As promised, I'm going to devote today's post to an article in the latest issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. I saw it in the Orlando airport on Thursday morning, but didn't but it, and then one of the Liberty Blog's erstwhile readers coincidentally e-mailed it to me on Friday morning.

It's an excellent read - and I want to draw your attention to a few things. First, the authors really try to do an objective and dispassionate "Myths-realities-solutions" take on the subject, which I think is an excellent approach. Second, they reiterate something I've said here before, the role of environmental groups in creating polices that exacerbated the disaster. Third, pay close attention to the role of government subsidies in encouraging bad behavior - a centrepiece of libertarian philosophy. Finally, also take a good look at their prescription for energy independence - an issue I've also covered in the past.

I'll italicize passages I think are particularly interesting. And I'm sorry for the smaller text - the length of the article and some formatting issues required it.

Enjoy! - Oh, and next up? The Fieldston "assembly" controversy - as reported in the New York Times.

Published in the March, 2006 issue.

Now What?
The Lessons of Katrina


Not the federal agencies tasked with preparing for catastrophes. Not the
local officials responsible for aging levees and vulnerable populations.
Least of all the residents themselves, who had been warned for decades that
they lived on vulnerable terrain. But when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf
Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, it seemed as though the whole country was caught
unawares. Accusations began to fly even before floodwaters receded.
But facts take longer to surface. In the months since the storm, many of the
first impressions conveyed by the media have turned out to be mistaken. And
many of the most important lessons of Katrina have yet to be absorbed. But
one thing is certain: More hurricanes will come. To cope with them we need
to understand what really happened during modern America's worst natural
disaster. POPULAR MECHANICS editors and reporters spent more than four
months interviewing officials, scientists, first responders and victims.
Here is our report.--THE EDITORS


MYTH:"The aftermath of Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments
of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history."--Aaron Broussard,
president, Jefferson Parish, La., Meet the Press, NBC, Sept. 4,

REALITY: Bumbling by top disaster-management officials fueled a perception
of general inaction, one that was compounded by impassioned news anchors.
In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest--and
fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency
personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm's landfall.

Dozens of National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters flew rescue operations
that first day--some just 2 hours after Katrina hit the coast.
Hoistless Army helicopters improvised rescues, carefully hovering on
rooftops to pick up survivors. On the ground, "guardsmen had to chop their
way through, moving trees and recreating roadways," says Jack Harrison of
the National Guard. By the end of the week, 50,000 National Guard troops in
the Gulf Coast region had saved 17,000 people; 4000 Coast Guard personnel
saved more than 33,000.

These units had help from local, state and national responders, including
five helicopters from the Navy ship Bataan and choppers from the Air Force
and police. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries dispatched
250 agents in boats. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state
police and sheriffs' departments launched rescue flotillas. By Wednesday
morning, volunteers and national teams joined the effort, including eight
units from California's Swift Water Rescue. By Sept. 8, the waterborne
operation had rescued 20,000.

While the press focused on FEMA's shortcomings, this broad array of local,
state and national responders pulled off an extraordinary
success--especially given the huge area devastated by the storm. Computer
simulations of a Katrina-strength hurricane had estimated a
worst-case-scenario death toll of more than 60,000 people in Louisiana.
The actual number was 1077 in that state.

NEXT TIME: Any fatalities are too many. Improvements hinge on building more
robust communications networks and stepping up predisaster planning
to better coordinate local and national resources.


Improving Response

ONE OF THE BIGGEST reminders from Katrina is that FEMA is not a first
responder. It was local and state agencies that got there first and saved
lives. Where the feds can contribute is in planning and helping to pay for a
coordinated response. Here are a few concrete steps.

Think Locally: "Every disaster starts and ends as a local event," says Ed
Jacoby, who managed New York state's emergency response to 9/11. All
municipalities must assess their own risk of disasters--both natural and

Include Business Help: "Companies realize that if a city shuts down, they
shut down," says Barry Scanlon, former FEMA director of corporate affairs.
During Katrina, many companies coordinated their own mini relief efforts.
That organizational power can augment public disaster management. "If 10
Fortune 100 members made a commitment to the Department of Homeland
Security," says Scanlon, "the country would take a huge leap forward."

Prearrange Contracts: Recovery costs skyrocket with high demand during a
crisis. Contracts with local firms must be signed before disaster strikes.
"You know beforehand that everyone is ready to move," says Kate Hale,
emergency management director of Florida's Miami-Dade County during
Hurricane Andrew in 1992. "The government blows the whistle and the
contractors go to work."

Better First-Responder Gear

In disasters, the right tools are everything. PM chose three Katrina-tested
technologies that should be part of every emergency manager's arsenal.

MOBILE COMMAND When Katrina knocked out communications, confusion followed.
Some emergency experts recommend mobile field headquarters such as this
$500,000 LDV communication and command truck, which enables incident
commanders to coordinate response when infrastructure goes down.
Up to six communication officers can work at a dispatch center with landline
phones and satellite, cellular and radio links that operate over multiple
frequencies to link incompatible systems.


Portable reverse-osmosis water filtration (such as the USFilter system,
shown here) uses high-pressure membranes to clean brackish water at an
output of 288,000 gal. of potable water per day. The cost: about $4 per 1000
gal.--a fraction of the cost of trucking in bottled water.


The Thales 25, from Thales Communications, is among the smallest, fully
interoperable digital radios available to first responders, bridging the
communications gap between multiple agencies. The handheld device can also
transmit GPS data to locate team members and victims.


MYTH:"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event."--New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin,
press conference, Aug. 28, 2005

REALITY: Though many accounts portray Katrina as a storm of unprecedented
magnitude, it was in fact a large, but otherwise typical, hurricane. On the
1-to-5 Saffir-Simpson scale, Katrina was a midlevel Category 3 hurricane at
landfall. Its barometric pressure was 902 millibars (mb), the sixth lowest
ever recorded, but higher than Wilma (882mb) and Rita (897mb), the storms
that followed it. Katrina's peak sustained wind speed at landfall 55 miles
south of New Orleans was 125 mph; winds in the city barely reached hurricane

By contrast, when Hurricane Andrew struck the Florida coast in 1992, its
sustained winds were measured at 142 mph. And meteorologists estimate that
1969's Category 5 Hurricane Camille, which followed a path close to
Katrina's, packed winds as high as 200 mph. Two factors made Katrina so
devastating. Its radius (the distance from the center of the storm to the
point of its maximum winds, usually at the inner eye wall) was 30
miles--three times wider than Camille's. In addition, Katrina approached
over the Gulf of Mexico's shallow northern shelf, generating a more powerful
storm surge--the water pushed ashore by hurricanes--than systems that move
across deeper waters. In Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, the surge
topped out at 30 ft.; in New Orleans the surge was 25 ft.--enough to overtop
some of the city's floodwalls.

NEXT TIME: According to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, the Atlantic
is in a cycle of heightened hurricane activity due to higher sea-surface
temperatures and other factors. The cycle could last 40 years, during which
time the United States can expect to be hit by dozens of Katrina-size
storms. Policymakers--and coastal residents--need to start seeing hurricanes
as routine weather events, not once-in-a-lifetime anomalies.


MYTH:"Perhaps not just human error was involved [in floodwall failures].
There may have been some malfeasance."--Raymond Seed, civil engineering
professor, UC, Berkeley, testifying before a Senate committee, Nov. 2, 2005

REALITY: Most of the New Orleans floodwall failures occurred when water up
to 25 ft. high overtopped the barriers, washing out their foundations. But
three breached floodwalls--one in the 17th Street Canal and two in the
London Avenue Canal--showed no signs of overtopping. Accusations of
malfeasance were born after the Army Corps of Engineers released seismic
data suggesting that the sheet-pile foundations supporting those floodwalls
were 7 ft. shorter than called for in the design--a possible cause for
collapse. In December 2005, PM watched Corps engineers pull four key
sections of the 17th Street Canal foundation out of the New Orleans mud. The
sections were more than 23 ft. long--as per design specifications. "I had
heard talk about improper building before the sheet-pile pull," the Corps'
Wayne Stroupe says. "But not much since."

NEXT TIME: The Corps is restoring levees at a cost of more than $1 billion
in time for the 2006 hurricane season (June 1), driving foundations 50 ft.
deep--almost three times the depth of the existing foundations.


Keeping New Orleans Dry

In 1965, the same year Hurricane Betsy swamped large sections of New Orleans
(including the Lower Ninth Ward), the Army Corps of Engineers presented
Congress with an audacious blueprint for protecting the city from a
fast-moving Category 3 storm. The $85 million Barrier Plan proposed sealing
off Lake Pontchartrain from the gulf with massive, retractable flood
barriers. The goal: Stop storm surges 25 miles east of the levees that
encircle New Orleans.
After Betsy, the plan was expanded to include gates on
two of the four drainage canals that slice into the city from Pontchartrain
(two of which breached their floodwalls after Katrina). But, environmental
groups objected to the impact that the Pontchartrain floodgates might have
on wildlife and wetlands. The Sewer and Water Board of New Orleans vetoed
gates on the canals. So the Corps instead built higher levees and

Now, 40 years later, the Corps is again studying how to design gates for
Pontchartrain and the New Orleans canals that will have minimal impact on
the environment and navigation, but will still be able to block
Katrina-strength storm surges. The report's due date: January 2008.
Meanwhile, engineers are also studying how to strengthen the existing
levees. One idea is to replace fragile I-wall barriers with more robust
T-walls, which use three rows of foundation pilings that can withstand
pressure generated by hurricane-force floodwaters. A wide concrete slab, or
"skirt," on the protected side deflects overflowing water that could
otherwise wash away supporting soil. T-walls held throughout Katrina without
a leak.


MYTH:"They have people ... been in that frickin' Superdome for five days
watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping
people."--New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Sept. 6,

REALITY: Both public officials and the press passed along lurid tales of
post-Katrina mayhem: shootouts in the Superdome, bodies stacked in a
convention center freezer, snipers firing on rescue helicopters. And those
accounts appear to have affected rescue efforts as first responders shifted
resources from saving lives to protecting rescuers. In reality, although
looting and other property crimes were widespread after the flooding on
Monday, Aug. 29, almost none of the stories about violent crime turned out
to be true. Col. Thomas Beron, the National Guard commander of Task Force
Orleans, arrived at the Superdome on Aug. 29 and took command of 400
soldiers. He told PM that when the Dome's main power failed around 5 am, "it
became a hot, humid, miserable place. There was some pushing, people were
irritable. There was one attempted rape that the New Orleans police

The only confirmed account of a weapon discharge occurred when Louisiana
Guardsman Chris Watt was jumped by an assailant and, during the chaotic
arrest, accidently shot himself in the leg with his own M-16.

When the Superdome was finally cleared, six bodies were found--not the 200
speculated. Four people had died of natural causes; one was ruled a suicide,
and another a drug overdose. Of the four bodies recovered at the convention
center, three had died of natural causes; the fourth had sustained stab

Anarchy in the streets? "The vast majority of people [looting] were taking
food and water to live," says Capt. Marlon Defillo, the New Orleans Police
Department's commander of public affairs. "There were no killings, not one
murder." As for sniper fire: No bullet holes were found in the fuselage of
any rescue helicopter.

NEXT TIME: "Rumors are fueled by a shortage of truth," says Ted Steinberg,
author of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disasters in
America. And truth was the first casualty of the information breakdown that
followed the storm. Hardening communications lines (see page 3) will benefit
not just first responders, but also the media. Government officials have a
vital role in informing the public. Ensuring the flow of accurate
information should be part of disaster planning at local, state and federal


MYTH:"The failure to evacuate was the tipping point for all the other things
that ... went wrong."--Michael Brown, former FEMA director, Sept.
27, 2005

REALITY: When Nagin issued his voluntary evacuation order, a contraflow plan
that turned inbound interstate lanes into outbound lanes enabled 1.2 million
people to leave New Orleans out of a metro population of 1.5 million. "The
Corps estimated we would need 72 hours [to evacuate that many people]," says
Brian Wolshon, an LSU civil engineer. "Instead, it took 38 hours." Later
investigations indicated that many who stayed did so by choice. "Most people
had transportation," says Col. Joe Spraggins, director of emergency
management in Harrison County, Ala. "Many didn't want to leave." Tragic
exceptions: hospital patients and nursing home residents.

NEXT TIME: All states should adopt a Florida-style registry, which enables
people who will need evacuation assistance to notify their city or state


MYTH:"We will rebuild [the Gulf Coast] bigger and better than ever."
--Haley Barbour, Miss. Gov., The Associated press, Sept. 3, 2005

REALITY: In the past 25 years, the tiny community of Dauphin Island, Ala.,
has been hit by at least six hurricanes. Residents there carry insurance
backed by the federal government, and they've collected more than $21
million in taxpayer money over the years to repair their damaged homes.
Not bad, considering their premiums rarely go up and they are seldom denied
coverage--even after Katrina almost completely demolished the barrier island
at the entrance to Mobile Bay.

"It's like a guy getting inebriated and wrecking his Ferrari four or five
times," says David Conrad of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).
"Eventually, a private insurer would say no. It doesn't work that way with
the federal flood insurance program."

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by FEMA, was
started in 1968 for homeowners who live in flood-prone areas considered too
great a risk by private insurers. And for more than 30 years, the program
was self-supporting. But studies by Conrad's NWF team revealed a disturbing
fact: Just 1 to 2 percent of claims were from "repetitive-loss
properties"--those suffering damage at least twice in a 10-year period.
Yet, those 112,000 properties generated a remarkable 40 percent of the
losses--$5.6 billion. One homeowner in Houston filed 16 claims in 18 years,
receiving payments totaling $806,000 for a building valued at $114,000.

Just as significantly, the five Gulf Coast states accounted for half the
total of repetitive-loss costs nationwide. Taxpayers across the country are
paying for a minute number of people to rebuild time and time again in the
path of hurricanes.

That is proving to be an expensive habit. Following Katrina, Rita and Wilma
in 2005, claims could exceed $22 billion--more than the total amount paid in
premiums in the program's 38-year history. In mid-November, the NFIP ran out
of money; to pay claims, Congress will have to authorize FEMA to borrow more

NEXT TIME: Folks in Tornado Alley and along the San Andreas fault don't get
federally backed insurance, so why should taxpayers subsidize coastal homes,
many of them vacation properties? Before we start rebuilding "bigger and
better," Congress should reform the flood insurance program. A good start:
Structure premiums so the program is actuarially sound and clamps down on
repetitive claims.

Another option is for the government to buy out homeowners in vulnerable
communities, just as it did along the Mississippi River following the floods
of 1993.
The only problem is that it is going to cost more to buy out
properties along the shore than it is to do it in North Dakota," says Andrew
Coburn of Duke University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.
"The concept is still solid. It's just going to take more dollars."


Rethinking the Coast

Katrina was the sixth storm in 20 years to flood Pete Melich's house on
Dauphin Island, Ala., yet the rain had barely stopped when he made plans for
a $500,000 home on the lot next door. This one will not be built on a slab,
but on 13-ft. pilings, with walls engineered to withstand 175-mph winds.
"There will never be another flood claim on my house," Melich says proudly.

The impulse is to rebuild quickly, only bigger and more expensively than
before. Yes, the federal flood insurance program described on the previous
page helps fuel that drive. Yet, some people, like Melich, would still live
in vulnerable areas, even without federal insurance. "The price I pay for
living on the gulf is hurricanes," Melich says. "I'm willing to deal with

Coastal development critics argue that a total retreat from the beach makes
economic and environmental sense. Realistically, that's not going to happen.
But Duke University's Coburn says that there are feasible steps that can
make coastal communities more storm resistant. Coburn's first step is to
restore natural buffers between the beach and developed areas (See sidebar
below.). He recommends wider setbacks from the beach (the equivalent of at
least two rows of housing); the creation of additional dune fields;
curvilinear roads that reduce the velocity and scouring of floodwaters; and
redesigned beach access points so they can't act as conduits for storm surge
and ebb. A second step: If people must build on the beach, they should
follow Melich's lead on tougher construction.


Barrier islanders can increase their protection by living in well-designed
beach communities. Duke University geologist Andrew Coburn has identified
measures that can minimize storm damage, as shown in this fictitious
setting. 1. A setback of a few hundred yards reduces vulnerability to storm
surge and provides a buffer zone from beach erosion. 2. Dunes and native
vegetation block winds, absorbing storm energy. 3. Access roads that run
parallel to the beach, not perpendicular, can't act as storm-surge conduits.


MYTH:"You have a major energy network that is down ... We could run out of
gasoline or diesel or jet fuel in the next two weeks here."--Roger Diwan,
managing director, Oil Markets Group, PFC Energy, Business Week, Sept. 1,

REALITY: Initially, the pictures from the gulf looked bleak: oil rigs washed
up along the coast, production platforms wrecked. In truth, Katrina
inflicted minimal damage to the offshore energy infrastructure. Only 86 of
the gulf's 4000 drilling rigs and platforms were damaged or destroyed, and
most of those were older, fixed platforms atop unproductive wells.

Then, a month later, Rita--a Category 5 storm when it tore through the
gulf--knocked out 125 more. Although no offshore wells or underground
pipelines ruptured, and no lives were lost, Katrina and Rita each shut down
nearly all the gulf's offshore output (which represents 29 percent of
domestic oil production and 19 percent of domestic natural gas production)
for more than a week. A third Cat 5 hurricane, Wilma, also slowed the
recovery. It took two months to get 60 percent of those wells back on line.

Refineries were hit harder. Katrina shut down nine of the gulf's 36
facilities; a month later, Rita disabled 15. Combined, the stoppages
affected 30 percent of the country's refining capacity. But recovery came
more quickly than many experts predicted. By the end of the year, overall
production was down just 8 percent, and only three refineries were still off
line. "This is by far the worst we've ever seen," says Ed Murphy, who is a
refinery expert at the American Petroleum Institute. "That we've recovered
so quickly is really quite extraordinary."

Despite fears that the energy infrastructure would break down, the system
proved surprisingly robust. Consumers did experience a spike in gas prices.
But, it was temporary and only partly attributable to the storms; a surge in
worldwide demand had already driven up prices. (Two weeks before Katrina, a
Newsday headline read: “Gas, Oil Prices Again Reach New
Records.") Although high prices were aggravating, they helped hold down
demand, encouraged new supply sources and ensured that gas stations and fuel
depots did not run dry.

NEXT TIME: Three major policy changes could help make our energy system more
resilient in the face of disasters. 1) Loosen restrictions on refinery
construction to encourage new refineries in more diverse locations. 2)
Expand port facilities for Liquefied Natural Gas to help supplement domestic
supply. 3) Relax the current ban on offshore natural gas drilling along the
Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Clearly, all three options require overcoming
NIMBY resistance and striking a careful balance between environmental and
energy concerns.


Re-Engineering the Mississippi

For nearly 300 years the interests of landowners, farmers, fishermen, oil
companies, businessmen and politicians have all conspired against the
natural will of the third largest drainage basin in the world. The
Mississippi River was once a meandering, interconnected system of large
streams. It flooded often, changed its course every 1500 years or so, and
built up coastal deltas and wetlands by depositing 400 million tons of clay,
sand and silt on southern Louisiana's coastline each year.
With a federal mandate to improve navigation and flood control, the Army
Corps of Engineers began building levees in the late 1800s, and by the 1940s
had largely tamed the river. In the past few decades, however, scientists
realized that the Corps' control structures, dams and levees were either
trapping sediment upstream or spitting it out past the continental shelf,
which meant that new coastal wetlands could no longer form and existing ones
were diminishing. This, combined with rising sea levels, has meant that in
the past century Louisiana has lost 1.2 million acres of coastal marshes,
swamps and barrier islands.

Engineers and scientists refer to the Mississippi basin as a "wicked
problem," a term used to describe inherently intractable challenges with
solutions that only lead to more complex problems. The Corps' wicked problem
is this: How do we re-engineer the lower Mississippi to restore coastal
wetlands while maintaining the flood controls and navigation structures that
led to their destruction? In 1998 Louisiana answered with the $14 billion
Coast 2050, a 60-project program that rivaled the Everglades restoration in
scope. Too long-range and expensive, said the White House Office of
Management and Budget. The Corps responded with the
$2 billion Louisiana Coastal Area plan, with five projects, which are still
under review. Other scientists and engineers also have proposed solutions,
both sweeping and modest. Post-Katrina, it is time to bring a national
commitment to applying the best of these ideas.

Redirecting Silt: To maintain navigability, the Corps regularly dredges the
river, but Robert Twilley, professor of oceanography and coastal science at
Louisiana State University, claims the Corps "wastes millions of cubic feet
per year of sediment that's tossed into the ocean. Instead we should
transport those dredged materials by pipeline, and spew silt from the river
over the coastal floodplain to nourish the landscape."
Since 1990, the Corps has initiated dozens of such projects, although their
scope and impact remain small when compared with the natural processes of
the river. Kerry St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National
Estuary Program, advocates 36-in. pipelines to carry 70 million cubic yards
of dredged silt annually from the Mississippi west to vanishing wetlands.

Build Bigger Diversions: To boost natural productivity, the Corps mimics the
effects of historical annual flooding by diverting fresh water into
receding, increasingly saline coastal estuaries. Two diversion
structures--at Caernarvon and Davis Pond--feature drainage holes called box
culverts that are cut into the levees to introduce controlled flows of 8000
to 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of fresh water into overly saline

Baton Rouge engineer Sherwood Gagliano proposes a grander diversion project
called the Third Delta. (Two areas of natural delta building are at the
mouths of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers.) Its centerpiece:
a 60-ft.-deep channel from the Mississippi, near Donaldsonville, that will
deliver 360,000 cfs of water and sediment to the Barataria and Terrebonne
basins flanking stagnant Bayou Lafourche.

Dismantle Obsolete Structures: Southeastern Louisiana is crosshatched with
unused canals, many of them dredged by mineral companies, that channel fresh
water and sediment to the gulf instead of into wetlands. "We need to break
down [obsolete] levees," Twilley says, "and backfill canals so that water
and sediment flow west.”

Louisiana Comeback Plans

For more than a century, the Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi River
mandate has been to control floods and aid navigation. The results: access
canals that bring salt water inland and a walled-in waterway that shoots
sediment into the gulf instead of replenishing storm-buffering wetlands and
barrier islands. Now, the Corps and others propose projects--incremental and
sweeping--to reverse rapid coastal erosion.

Reporting:Camas Davis, Nicole Davis, Christian DeBenedetti, Brad Reagan,
Kristin Roth

Copyright 2006 - Popular Mechanics


Anonymous Bruce said...

This article has gotten way too little coverage - especially when compared to Brown's Hill testimony. Why isn't the mainstream or even conservative press using this? Why isn't the WH?

February 23, 2006 12:02 PM

Blogger Andrew Langer said...

Now,that's an interesting question, Bruce. Hmmmm - I ought to let someone over there know, shouldn't it?

BTW - PBS is running a documentary on Python - kind of like the SNL "Best of" DVDs, which focus on an individual person. Last night was Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. I think next week is Cleese and Palin. Or Cleese and Gilliam. I can't remember.

Thought I'd let you know - on the Idle ep., they did the "University of Wallaballoo" sketch.

Still LOL funny.

February 23, 2006 2:57 PM


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