KATRINA: The Failures of Success


The backstory: Barriers and hubris, piled ever higher.
By Craig E. Colten

Standing on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, a completely familiar place, on September 5, 2005, produced an utterly foreign experience. The levees that New Orleans relied on had failed on August 29, and the city swarmed with recently arrived National Guard units and Coast Guard choppers churning through the muggy air overhead. The city that care forgot had just become the object of global caring.

Even though much of New Orleans (including the Bywater) is a bit decrepit, I had never seen the city in such disarray. Street lights and fallen oak trees littered the median and every car along the curb had a window broken out and its trunk popped. Abandoned city buses, parked at odd angles, mocked the failed evacuation effort. Two empty schools had all their windows thrown open to permit ventilation for the evacuees who had huddled there in the dark during the perilous days before we arrived. Toward Lake Pontchartrain, water stood up to a meter deep in the streets. Facing south toward the Mississippi River, the streets were largely dry.

St. Claude Avenue and the Bywater had endured high winds and rising water as Hurricane Katrina pounded ashore the preceding Monday, but its residents…

A blow by blow account.
By John Mcquaid
In mid-August 2005, a small tropical disturbance (a migratory cluster of powerful thunderstorms) formed over the Atlantic Ocean east of the Lesser Antilles. At the start, there was nothing much to distinguish it from three other such disturbances then hovering over the south Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Even after it strengthened over the Bahamas and was christened Hurricane Katrina, it remained an unremarkable storm, a Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, with sustained winds of only 129 kilometers per hour (kph). Katrina struck the Florida coast between Miami and Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, August 25, causing 11 deaths but relatively minor damage.

But after traversing the Florida peninsula and entering the Gulf, Hurricane Katrina underwent a startling transformation. Over land, the storm had weakened to tropical storm strength. But Katrina soon moved over the Gulf loop current, a flow of warm water that acts as a heating element for hurricanes. In the space of a few hours on August 26, Katrina bulked up into a Category 3 hurricane. By Saturday, it had grown into a giant Category 5 storm, with top winds a furious 269 kph. Its clouds covered most of the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricane Katrina was poised to become one of the biggest natural disasters, and the single costliest one, in American history—and to deliver…


It takes more than guns and bombs.
By Michael Renner, with Zoë Chafe

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a joke circulated to the effect that had the people of New Orleans wanted the federal government to come to their rescue right away, they should have blamed the storm on Al Qaeda.

Sometimes it takes sarcasm to make a point. An administration that has masterfully exploited post-9/11 security fears to justify many of its actions proved itself downright uninterested in undertaking adequate measures to protect the Gulf coast population against the very real threat posed by Hurricane Katrina.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration embraced a muscular security policy with relish—as manifested in its invasion of Iraq and sharply escalating military expenditures. But the administration resolutely turned its back on a broader understanding of security that has slowly gained currency in academic and policymaking circles. It has become quite clear that in many circumstances weapons are simply inappropriate tools. They possess awesome destructive power, but can do little or nothing to protect us from environmental breakdown, rising competition for resources, a resurgence of infectious diseases, growing wealth disparities, and demographic pressures—non-military threats that may be every bit as lethal as the actions of a determined enemy.

Several factors, including ecosystem destruction, population growth, and the economic marginalization of poor people, have in combination set the stage for…


Grave enough, but next time might be worse.
By Julian Cheatle

The Patriot Act of 2001 contains the U.S. government’s most recent definition of critical infrastructure: “Systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.”

By this measure, New Orleans and nearby areas along the Gulf coast easily qualify as locations of critical infrastructure—a fact reflected in the toll of damage done by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, estimated at nearly $100 billion by the U.S. government and even more by others. That is a substantial amount of damage, roughly equal to the GDP of New Zealand or the combined GDPs of the 69 poorest countries in the world. Adding to this toll were the economic costs incurred indirectly from lost oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, and trade and consumption losses from the complete or partial closures of seven major ports on the coast.

In New Orleans, situated strategically at the junction of one of the world’s major inland waterways, the Mississippi River, and the international shipping lanes of the Gulf of Mexico, the environment has long been right for…


Climate change is raising sea levels, and the stakes, for all coastal cities.
By John Young

New Orleans is a sort of American Venice, built on a watery site ideal for commerce and surrounded by a
huge delta assembled over millennia by the Mississippi River. Levees intended to contain the river’s floods have coincidentally eliminated the annual silt deposits; as a result, along with the effects of oil and gas extraction, the area is subsiding. In New Orleans the problem has been compounded by groundwater use and the immediate pumping of rainwater after storms. Without rainwater’s slow percolation into the soil, aquifers are never recharged, and the land compacts still further, especially under heavy structures.

The coastal parishes of Louisiana are sinking, on average, about 11 millimeters each year. At the same time, global sea level has been slowly rising over the last century, at 1.0–2.5 millimeters per year. The two trends have consigned half a million hectares of South Louisiana to the sea since 1932; the ongoing rate is about one and a half football fields every hour. Much of the lost land was coastal wetlands, which historically protected New Orleans by slowing and soaking up storm surges (the sudden rises in sea level that occur as hurricanes come ashore). The remaining wetlands are increasingly fragile, fragmented by canals built for navigation and access to the area’s oil and gas.

All these factors make New Orleans particularly vulnerable to hurricanes, but within a few decades many more lowlying coastal areas around the world may…


Let the city go; we need a working Mississippi River delta more.
By George M. Woodwell

Katrina thundered into New Orleans on energy accumulated from a superheated Gulf of Mexico. The superheating was no surprise. It has been building for the last century as we have accelerated the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere and steadily watched and measured the consequences. The process continues as we compete to burn the last of the easily accessible oil in the world, struggle to find the least obnoxious ways of burning massive quantities of coal, and transform the last of the primary forest into agricultural land or to other purposes, releasing at each step more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the polar regions have warmed differentially, glaciers have melted and contributed to a rise in sea level, and storms have grown in size and strength as energy has accumulated in the atmosphere. As though conspiring to flood New Orleans, we have pumped water and oil out from under the Mississippi Delta, and New Orleans has sunk. To protect New Orleans and other lowlands along the Mississippi River, we have built extensive dikes to keep the water that drains from half a continent in ever-narrower channels. The dikes confine the flow, and the level of the river rises further above the city in times of flood. Safety requires still higher dikes. The once-extensive marshes of the Delta that served as a buffer against storm surges and floodwater have been cut again and again for access to oil, and have eroded away. These and other changes have made…


New Orleans embodies qualities America can’t afford to lose.
By Andrei Codrescu

The world’s greatest cities shouldn’t exist. Venice has been sinking for centuries. San Francisco straddles the San Andreas fault. New York is an irresistible multicultural target for haters of diversity and tolerance. Paris and Prague can be transformed into piles of cobblestones and barricades by revolutionary mobs. New Orleans is a bowl set amid barely contained waters in a fetid swamp.

One can make a rational argument against cities, to arrive in the end at the ultimate rational argument: cities shouldn’t exist. From inadvisable geography to undesirable sociology, from the vicissitudes of nature to the ill-will of men, large concentrations of buildings and people do not make rational sense. The only sense that cities used to make was economic, but since the decentralization of economies by communication technology, even that argument no longer holds.

And yet, we love cities like Venice and New Orleans precisely for all the reasons they shouldn’t exist. In fact, the more reasons we can make against their existence, the more we love them. Love diminishes in direct proportion to their reasonableness, so that perfectly unreasonable cities like New Orleans are considerably more lovable than safe cities that lie sprawling with all their strip malls showing on rock-solid plains made of dense comforts such as good schools, easy insurance, tamed rivers, and clean air. The majority of our citizens…


Author Kim Stanley Robinson muses about truth, fiction, and climate change.
Interview With Erik Assadourian

Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy and The Years of Rice and Salt, is in the midst of writing a three-part series of novels about the near future—a time in which abrupt climate change has arrived, and the ocean current that regulates temperatures in eastern North America and Western Europe has started to break down. Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below, the first two novels in the trilogy, have already appeared; the third is expected to be released this fall.

Unlike the sensationalist film The Day After Tomorrow, in which the Earth’s climate changes radically within a few weeks, Robinson’s story more plausibly unfolds over several years. It follows the lives of several “foot soldiers” in the ensuing battle to adapt to a changing world: a scientist at the National Science Foundation, a staff person for a U.S. senator, and a group of Tibetans who have founded a new nation on a low-lying island off the coast of India. These characters work together to create a political environment supportive of making the dramatic changes necessary to prevent…


Poor and black = low, wet, and maybe dead.
By Eric Mann

The night before Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans was a city of almost 500,000 people, two thirds of whom were African-American (black). It was typical of many U.S. urban centers today, after years of government-is-the-problem governance: its schools and social services were falling apart. More than 142,000 people were living in poverty, of whom 84 percent were black, and most of whom still labored from sunup to sundown without making a living wage. Many blacks were unemployed; more than 13 percent officially, and a far higher share if one counted those permanently “discouraged.” (The national average was 4.9 percent in August 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). In New Orleans, “poor” and “black” were virtually synonymous.

For those who worked and who could not find work alike, there was the constant threat of incarceration, often for the most minor of infractions. Louisiana is the prison capital of the United States, with the highest state per-capita incarceration rates: 173,000 people locked up out of a population of 4.5 million people. Blacks account for 32 percent of Louisiana’s population but 75 percent of the prisoners.

The most flood-vulnerable area of the city, the Lower 9th Ward, was 98 percent black. Other neighborhoods below sea level included Eastern Orleans (over 80 percent black), and the lowlands of Mid-City, Bywater, and Gentilly, all with high percentages of…


Oil and water, not mixing: fossil fuel addictions spread high-seas trouble.
By Mike Tidwell

When the malevolent waters of Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of New Orleans, Americans across the country began asking two basic questions. How in the world did this disaster happen? And, Can the same thing happen where I live? Surprisingly, in all the coverage since the storm, the media have answered the first question largely incorrectly and the second question not at all.

The main reason Katrina became a mega-disaster was not because of flawed hurricane levees and poor evacuation plans. These were just symptoms of a larger disease. Katrina destroyed New Orleans because, over the past 100 years, the Gulf of Mexico moved about one meter higher in relation to the city. The land itself, thanks to human activities, sank about two-thirds of a meter in relation to the Gulf while the Gulf waters rose— again because of human actions—about 30 centimeters.

That one-meter rise over the last 100 years wiped out a staggering 400,000 hectares of coastal wetlands and barrier islands between New Orleans and the Gulf. A land mass larger than Rhode Island simply turned to water. The result, by August 29, 2005, was to create a watery flight path for Katrina to slam into New Orleans, like a plane into the World Trade Center. The old landforms that had traditionally slowed down the surge tides of past hurricanes in Louisiana—the marsh grasses, the coastal islands—were almost all gone. Without them, only a fantastic…