Hurricane Katrina Catastrophe
by Alan Shapiro
To the Teacher:
The full scope of the Gulf coast disaster will take time to assess. The reading that follows describes what happened after the hurricane struck and explores whether any of its catastrophic results might have been preventable. Questions for discussion and citizenship activities follow.
Hurricane Katrina: "A disaster waiting to happen"
The U.S.S. Bataan with its six operating rooms, hundreds of hospital beds, and 100,000 gallons of fresh water daily was without patients just off the Gulf Coast for days after the massive Hurricane Katrina blasted into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama on August 29, 2005.
Meanwhile, thousands of patients, staff members and their families waited and waited to be evacuated from New Orleans hospitals that were without power. Some died because their ventilators didn't work. While flood waters rose in lower floors, people died in their beds, in hallways and stairwells.
Countless numbers of other people waited, without food or water, to be rescued from rooftops, attics, and isolated patches of ground. Hundreds, if not thousands, had almost certainly drowned. Many of their bodies would probably not be found until the flood waters receded.
Although officials announced a "mandatory evacuation" of New Orleans, they did not provide the means for evacuating. So while most middle-class people fled in their cars to hotels or to stay with friends and family, many low-income people had no such options. They didn't have cars, credit cards, or anywhere to stay. Buses were unavailable. So thousands of people, mostly poor, mostly African American, clung to their homes as the waters rose.
Over 20,000 of these stranded residents eventually landed in New Orleans' semi-dark, powerless Superdome. Another 25,000 waited in the convention center for buses that would take them away from the heat, the stench of overflowing toilets and sudden violence to someplace, anyplace, where there would be water, food, safety.
"Are you telling me we can coordinate a relief effort on the other side of the world and we can't do it here?" I.V. Hilliard, pastor of the New Light Christian Center Church in Houston, said. "I can't help but think that race has something to do with it." Bruce Gordon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said federal aid for victims should be similar to what was given to those who lost relatives on 9/11. (New York Times, 9/5/05)
Michael Chertoff, the U.S. homeland security chief, said on National Public Radio (9/1/05) that he had "not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water"óalthough anyone with a TV or a radio had heard about it for at least a day.
That night, the fourth night after the storm hit, Michael Brown, the head of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is charged with coordinating U.S. disaster response), was interviewed by CNN's Paula Zahn. He said he had only just learned of the thousands of desperate people waiting in the convention center. She was astounded. "Sir," she said, "you aren't just telling me you just learned that the folks at the convention center didn't have food and water until today, are you? You had no idea they were completely cut off?" No, he responded, "the federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today."
Two days later President Bush nevertheless praised Brown's work.
On the NBC program, "Meet the Press," Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish near New Orleans, sobbed as he told about an emergency management official whose mother was trapped in a nursing home. Day after day, she called her son, begging to be rescued. Her son was told repeatedly by other officials that help would be on the way.
"Every day she called him and said, 'Are you coming, son? Is someone coming?' And he said, 'Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you.' Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday. And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night."
"This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace," Terry Ebbert, the head of homeland security in New Orleans, bitterly complained. "FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans." (New York Times, 9/2/05)
Five days after Katrina slammed into the Gulf coast, "the chaotic scene at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport evoked the mix of hope and despair that has gripped this city. Disorder prevailed, as thousands of survivors with glazed looks and nothing more than garbage bags of possession waited in interminable lines for a chance to get out. Patrolmen yelled out the number of available seats on each flight, and passengers boarded planes not knowing where they would land, and not caring." (New York Times, 9/3/05)
There were New Orleans police and other public employees who performed heroically, saving lives, helping people get out of flooded houses, working hard to stop widespread looting and keep order. But they needed backup that was not there.
President Bush began the fifth day after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast by saying on the South Lawn of the White House that the results of federal effort were "not acceptable."
The National Guard is charged with providing help and bringing order in such disasters. But it took days for the Guard to show up in force. Why? Answers varied. The force of the storm slowed the response, some said. The lines of authority were not clear: No one seemed to know whether civilian officials or the military was in charge. Furthermore, almost one-third of Louisiana's National Guard and about 40 percent of Mississippi's were in Iraqóalong with the high-water vehicles, humvees, and generators that were desperately needed at home.
There was plenty of blame to pass aroundóand it will take time to sort out exactly why so many people suffered so badly or died. However, it seems clear that local, state, and federal systems all failed at a moment when tens of thousands of Americans needed their help.
Although conditions on the Gulf Coast have long been ripe for this kind of disaster, our nation was not prepared when the disaster struck. New Orleans was flooded after levees holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain broke. On September 1, President Bush told Diane Sawyer of ABC, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breech in the levees."
But in fact, many people had anticipated that the levees would give wayóand had urged action to prevent this catastrophe from happening.
For many years scientists, engineers, newspaper reporters, planners, and public officials have warned repeatedly that New Orleans and the Gulf coast was "a disaster waiting to happen," as Mark Fischetti wrote in Scientific American magazine in October 2001.
Not only does the city lie "below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west," Fischetti explained, but "because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk even after minor storms."
Even worse, "the low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now, another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marshóan area the size of Manhattanówill have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes."
The shrinking of the marsh, Fischetti said, is caused by "natural processes that have been artificially accelerated by human tinkering"óincluding building levees along river backs, draining wetlands, dredging channels so ships can pass, and cutting canals through marshes. Some of these changes were made to prevent flooding. Others were made to accommodate the oil industry, which dominates this part of the country.
One effect of all this human tinkering is to keep the Mississippi River from depositing silt that would keep the low-lying areas like New Orleans from sinking. Furthermore, said Fischetti, every lost acre of marshland "gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communitiesÖ."
These conditions are only made worse by global warming, which is causing ocean levels to rise. In addition, higher ocean and air temperatures fuel more powerful storms. A recent article in the British science magazine Nature reports that tropical storms have become one-half again as long, their winds 50 percent more powerful than in the past. Bill McKibben, who has written extensively about global warming, attacks "the scandalous lack of planning that has kept us from even beginning to address climate change and the sad fact that global warming means the future will be full of just this kind of horror in the Gulf Coast." (www.tompaine.com)
A year after Fischetti's article appeared, New Orleans' leading local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, published a five-part series whose first article began, "It's only a matter of time before south Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane." The second article declared, "Evacuation is the most certain route to safety, but it may be a nightmare. And 100,000 without transportation will be left behindÖ.Some will be housed at the SuperdomeÖ.Thousands will drown."
Most of the problems contributing to the likelihood of a Gulf coast catastrophe have been known for decades. Not enough was done about them under various federal administrations. Most recently, the Bush administration made a number of decisions that almost certainly contributed to the loss of lives and homes in hurricane Katrina.
- The Bush administration nixed a plan, proposed a year ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to protect New Orleans from a disastrous hurricane.
- The administration cut federal funding for flood control in southeast Louisiana in half, arguing that the money was needed for the war in Iraq.
- The administration allowed wetlands to be turned over to developers rather than restoring funds to maintain wetlands.
- The administration cut funding requested by the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for holding back Lake Pontchartrain's waters.
- The administration made FEMA, once an independent agency, part of its new Department of Homeland Security, and shifted the agency's focus from natural disaster to terrorism.
In addition, the Bush administration has opposed taking steps to lessen the threat of global warming. The U.S., under President Bush, is one of the few industrialized nations in the world that has failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty requiring cuts in the greenhouse gases that cause global warmingóeven though the U.S. is responsible for one-quarter of the world's total emissions. One hundred and thirty-two U.S. mayors who disagree with President Bush and support the Kyoto Protocol have created a bipartisan coalition to act on global warming locally. Long before hurricane Katrina, the mayor of New Orleans joined the coalition because, he said, the projected rise in sea levels "threatens the very existence of New Orleans."
1. What questions do students have? How might they be answered?
2. What major tentative conclusions about the disastrous results of Hurricane Katrina seem reasonable?
3. What issues seem to call for thorough investigation? Why?
1. Students may be interested in conducting inquiries into issues associated with the catastrophic hurricane. For example:
- Why did it take so long for National Guard units to arrive in New Orleans and establish order?
- Who was supposed to be in charge of the Superdome and the convention center? Where were they?
- Why wasn't the Bataan immediately used for hospital patients?
- Could a breech in the levees have been reasonably anticipated, and if so, could anything have been done to prevent it?
- Why weren't more federal actions taken before the hurricane to prepare for the likely occurrence of one?
Students might then:
- Publish a newspaper or magazine about their research for distribution within the school
- Send copies of their publication and/or detailed letters with questions to public officials, including Congressional representatives, the directors of FEMA and Homeland Security, and the president
2. Students might also be interested in organizing a fundraising campaign for the Hurricane Katrina victims. See www.fema.gov for a list of organizations collecting money for their aid.
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