Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A breach in the levee?


CNN just had a live interview with someone from Tulane University Hospital, who said that the water there was rising at the rate of 1 inch every 5 minutes (which is 1 foot per hour), and that the rate was increasing over time. In fact, every report I've seen from inside New Orleans has said that the flood water there is rising, hampering rescue efforts.

Much more seriously, the woman reported that the Louisiana State Police confirmed that there is a 2 block long breach on the Orleans Parsh side of the levee at the 17th Street canal. That levee is there to hold back the water of Lake Ponchartrain, but she described water pouring down Canal Street so fast that it had whitecaps.

Water from the lake flooding the city is clearly one of the major components of the nightmare scenarios I posted below.

This is not good.

[This link should bring you to a Google Map which shows Tulane University Hospital, where I believe the woman was reporting from, and the 17th Street Canal -- which is the thin north-south strip of blue in the center top of the map, just to the west of Ponchartrain Blvd. Canal Street goes northwest of the hospital, and if the water is streaming down it, it might be that the breach in the levee is somewhere near the Lake Lawn Park Cemetary, which can be seen almost in the direct center of the map. This is speculation, of course.]

(Tue 3:30am): CNN reports that they're waiting for confirmation about the breach from the Army Corps of Engineers, which is supposedly meeting right now about what to do about it.

They replayed the conversation with the woman from Tulane. She said that the hospital had no water accumulation after the storm, but the water rapidly rose until they were surrounded by 6 feet of water and had to evacuate before it reached their emergency generators on the 2nd floor and they lost power.

(Tue 4:00am): WWL-TV says that New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin estimates that 80% of the city is underwater. He also said that the "Twin Span Bridge" was "totally destroyed" by the storm. Not knowing New Orleans well (I've only been there once, for a week), I assume he's referring to the Crescent City Connection.

(Tue 4:15am): A fire depart official confirms a 200 foot break in the levee along the 17th Street Canal.

(Tue 4:00pm): It looks very much as if the situation in New Orleans is playing out pretty much precisely along the lines suggested by the nightmare worst-case scenario I posted previously: levee breaches, widespread flooding, a building toxic sludge in the water, stranded refugees in the Superdome, no fresh water, gas main breaks causing fires, looting, the whole package of horrors.

Some brief observations:
  • Media coverage has turned predictably awful, more concerned about mawkish and sentimental "human interest" stories than in hard reporting. They're already trying to wrap-up a complex story that will go on for months (if not longer) into a neat package for instant consumption.

  • I'm reassured to rediscover that Wolf Blitzer really is a very terrible reportor/anchor, regardles of whether he's covering politics or not.

  • Personification of the storm is rampant: I've heard it called "vicious", "angry", "evil" and it is said to have "spawned" tornadoes. It's also been referred to as "she". Katrina is not a person, it has or had no intentions or designs, it's a process of nature, and the damage it causes is a result of its power and our own natures. We continue to build without regard to potential drawbacks, and are shocked when nature doesn't cooperate with us.

  • How is it possible to estimate the cost of damages, when no one has any clear idea of the extent or nature of those damages? In any event, I've got little or no sympathy for insurance companies which will take a hit -- the nature of their business is that they take a gamble. If they win, they make a lot of money, if they lose, they pay out a lot of money. In the words of Superchicken: "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred."

  • The "Twin Spans" referred to by the mayor appears to be the I-10 causeway/bridge to Slidell to the northeast. Video on CNN showed it to be heavily damaged, and impassable. According to an article on the Times-Picayune website, the Crescent City Connection I referred to above is "the only clear route out of town."

  • The media should go easy on the moral censure they're starting to heap on looters. In the situation they're in, it all depends on what they're taking. If they're stealing TVs, iPods and luxury items, that's one thing, but if they're taking food, which is going to go bad soon anyway, water or medical supplies in order to survive, that's another thing entirely. Reporters should at least try to find out what's going on before they roll out their high moral tone.

  • I don't think people have yet fully glommed on to the unique nature of the problem in New Orleans. It's not that the damage there is most extensive than in Mobile, Biloxi or Gulfport (although it probably it), it's that in those other places, the flood waters will recede, and work can begin on re-building, while in New Orleans, until the levees are repaired and the pumps are brought up to full capacity, the flood water is just going to stay there and find its natural equilibrium level, caught in the bowl created by the topography of the place and the very flood-control system created to protect the city. That makes the New Orleans situation a very long term and intractable problem, compared to other places.

  • Where is the President of the United States in all this? Shouldn't he be taking a leading roll, at least as the public figurehead, the leader of the country? I guess we should all be grateful that he interrupted his vacation, but surely he can do more than that.

    (My antipathy for Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of NYC was almost as strong as my hatred for Bush, and yet I gave Rudy full marks for his leadership in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (until he blew it). I'll never like or admire Bush, but he could earn at least my grudging respect with some vigorous leadership in this crisis. I don't think it will happen, because I don't think he has it in him. He's a Potemkin President, all facade and nothing inside. When we needed a leader, the Supreme Court, and half the people of America, gave us a sham.)

(Tue 6:00pm) More observations:

  • Someone should tell Wolf Blitzer that being an anchor means something more than standing authoritatively in front of a bank of video monitors clutching some papers. The purpose of the anchor in a crisis like this is to gather information and impressions from reporters on the scene, and to arrange those bits and pieces into a mosaic that represents a reasonably accurate view of what's happening. How many times do I have to hear a reporter tell Blitzer that they can't answer his inane question about something going on somewhere else, because the reporter can't get around and has no communications? If Blitzer isn't capable of doing his job of integrating the data coming in, then a producer should be doing it for him.

  • Why is the Pentagon just now deploying urban search-and-rescue teams, on 6pm of the second day, almost 36 hours after the storm first hit? Shouldn't those teams have been on site this morning to start working at first light? I'm an ignorant peon with access to nothing but what information is out there publicly, and yet it was apparent to me by late yesterday that this was a very serious problem -- shouldn't that have been apparent to those in charge in Washington? They've now lost a full day of light in which to work.

  • Reporters who spent their time during the storm having their crews take footage of them trying to walk in hurricane-force winds, and the producers who air that footage ad infinitum ought to reconsider their choice of careers. The purpose of the reporter on the scene is to gather information, not to prove their macho foolhardiness.

  • More easy moral censure is being thrown at those who stayed behind in New Orleans and elsewhere instead of leaving, completely ignoring the reality that many people don't have the capability of leaving (no money, no cars, physical inability) even if they wanted to. Did the local government organize buses to take those people out? If they did, where would they go?

    As hard as it is for people to comprehend, not everyone owns a car, especially in a city like New Orleans (or New York City for that matter) where the public transportation system is good. Now is really not the time to pick on people who are in extremis.

From nola.com:

Tuesday, 6:35 p.m.

Mayor Ray Nagin issued an urgent bulletin through WWL-TV at 6:30 p.m.

Nagin said efforts to stop the flow of water at the breach on the 17th Street Canal are failing, which means the floodwaters will rise again.

Nagin said the waters will soon overwhelm the pump, shutting it down. He said the water will rise to 3 feet above sea level - or 12-15 feet in some places of east Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

Nagin has advised residents who have not already evacuated to do so as soon as possible.

(Wed 1:30am): From what I've seen and read, the widespread looting doesn't seem to be people taking the essentials they need to survive, it seems to be kids and young men (always the most dangerous demographic group) stealing luxury items. I certainly understand the police wanting to prevent lawlessness, but it may be that their efforts are simply wasted energy. The police should protect people from violence (as in the mob that's apparently threatened the Charity Hospital), but otherwise allow people to take what they want, since they won't be able to use the stuff anyway. With no power, and little chance of getting it back for weeks, no ability to get around, and the streets either under water or soon to be, let them waste their time hauling TVs to their apartments -- what's the difference? The businesses are going to write off their entire stocks anyway. The energy of the authorities could almost certanly be better spent in other ways.

Small business owners have another perspective, of course:

In Uptown, one the few areas that remained dry, a bearded man patrolled Oak Street near the boarded-up Maple Leaf Bar, a sawed-off shotgun slung over his shoulder. The owners of a hardware store sat in folding chairs, pistols at the ready.

Uptown resident Keith Williams started his own security patrol, driving around in his Ford pickup with his newly purchased handgun. Earlier in the day, Williams said he had seen the body of a gunshot victim near the corner of Leonidas and Hickory streets.

"What I want to know is why we don’t have paratroopers with machine guns on every street," Williams said.

There's quite a few logistical reasons why not, of course (impassable roads, flooded streets, etc.), but the fact that 35% of the Louisiana National Guard are in Iraq probably has something to do with it as well.

(Wed 3:30am)

  • It seems my estimate of the location of the breach in the levee by the 17th Street Canal was off. According to this article, it's by the Hammond Highway Bridge, which is quite close to the lake. (Update: It was not a levee which was breached, but a sea wall. Apparently, the water undermined it.)

    As night fell on a devastated region, the water was still rising in the city, and nobody was willing to predict when it would stop. After the destruction already apparent in the wake of Katrina, the American Red Cross was mobilizing for what regional officials were calling the largest recovery operation in the organization's history.

    Police officers, firefighters and private citizens, hampered by a lack of even rudimentary communication capabilities, continued a desperate and impromptu boat-borne rescue operation across Lakeview well after dark. Coast Guard helicopters with searchlights criss-crossed the skies. Officers working on the scene said virtually every home and business between the 17th Street Canal and the Marconi Canal, and between Robert E. Lee Boulevard and City Park Avenue, had water in it. Nobody had confirmed any fatalities as a result of the levee breach, but they conceded that hundreds of homes had not been checked.

    As the sun set over a still-roiling Lake Pontchartrain, the smoldering ruins of the Southern Yacht Club were still burning, and smoke streamed out over the lake. Nobody knew the cause of the fire because nobody could get anywhere near it to find out what happened.

    Dozens of residents evacuated to the dry land of the Filmore Street bridge over the Marconi Canal were stranded between the flooded neighborhood on their right, and the flooded City Park on their left, hours after they had been plucked from rooftops or second-story windows.

    With 80% of the city flooded, something on the order of a million people are essentially homeless right now. Rebuilding will probably take years, and even starting the reconstruction effort won't happen for months. This suggests that if you have a relative or friend in New Orleans (or, to a lesser extent, in the other affected areas of the Gulf Coast), it might be a good idea to invite them to stay with you for a while. Every person that the authorities don't have to provide for would be something of a help to them in stretching their resources.

  • I'm really surprised that no one (as far as I know) has used any of the various satellites to take photographs of New Orleans to better illustrate the extent of the flooding. (Update: No sooner did I post this then I saw a post-Katrina satellite image of New Orleans on ABC World News Now. It was credited to both Google Earth and the USGS.)

  • One caller to CNN, a parish official from the New Orleans area, started to talk about the Missippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) being one of the (many) reasons that the affects of the hurricane were so devastating, but they weren't allowed to continue. There's an article about the canal here:
    “The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, since its construction in 1965 as an alternative route for ocean going vessels into the Port of New Orleans, has caused increased storm surge vulnerability to developed areas of St. Bernard and Orleans parishes and extensive environmental damage to a vast region. Greatest impacts occur in St. Bernard, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes, in that order. The channel is a serious threat to public safety and an environmental threat to the region.”

    Here is the website of a group urging the canal (which costs $13 to $37 million a year just to keep dredged, all for fewer than five ships per day) to be closed.

(Wed 7:06am): Here's a map showing the elevation of New Orleans.

A guide to New Orleans neighborhoods is here, and a graphic showing the levee system is here.

(Wed 9:00am) From the Times-Picayune:

[Louisiana State University Hurricane Center researcher Ivor] Van Heerden said that if there's a silver lining to this disastrous event, it's that the eye of Katrina didn't go directly over or to the west of the city. If that had happened, the storm surge could have been much higher and would have directly topped levees all along the lake and much more rapidly filled the bowl, which would have meant an even higher death toll than is anticipated from this slow-moving event, he said.

So in that respect, New Orleans got lucky -- if you want to call it that.

The problems caused by floodwaters will only get worse, according to van Heerden and the earlier tabletop exercises. For one, if the water in the city does rise to the height of levees along the lakefront, it may be difficult to open floodgates designed to keep the lake out that would now be needed to allow the lake to leave. Van Heerden said the rising floodwaters also would cause major pollution problems in coming days, as they float dozens of fuel and chemical storage tanks off their fittings, severing pipelines and allowing the material to seep into the floodwaters.

"In our surveys of the parish, a lot of the storage tanks we looked at weren't bolted down with big bolts," he said. "They rely on gravity to hold them down. If an industrial property is 5 feet below sea level and the water gets to 5 feet above sea level, that's 10 feet of water, and I'm certain many we looked at will float free.

"You'll see a lot of highly volatile stuff on the surface, and one spark and we'll have a major fire," he said.

Another story:

[C]ops on the street, cut off from their superiors by a failure of the communications system, complained of chaos.

"Put this in your paper," one officer on Canal Street said. "They told us nothing. We were unprepared. We are completely on our own.''

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 8/30/2005 02:30:00 AM | | | del.icio.us | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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Bullshit, trolling, unthinking knee-jerk dogmatism and the drivel of idiots will be ruthlessly deleted and the posters banned.

Entertaining, interesting, intelligent, informed and informative comments will always be welcome, even when I disagree with them.

I am the sole judge of which of these qualities pertains.

All e-mail received is subject to being published on unfutz without identifying names or addresses.

I correct typos and other simple errors of grammar, syntax, style and presentation in my posts after the fact without necessarily posting notification of the change.

Substantive textual changes, especially reversals or major corrections, will be noted in an "Update" or a footnote.

Also, illustrations may be added to entries after their initial publication.
the story so far
unfutz: toiling in almost complete obscurity for almost 1500 days
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the proud unfutz guarantee
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.

If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


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