Thursday, September 08, 2005

Starting the time-line


The Times-Picayune has the beginning of a time-line for the effects of Katrina in New Orleans:
Katrina trapped city in double disasters

By John McQuaid
Staff writer

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans with a double blow when it made landfall Aug. 29. First, storm surge waters from the east rapidly swamped St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans before the eye of the storm had passed the city around 9 a.m. Within hours, surge waters collapsed city canal floodwalls and began to “fill the bowl,” while top officials continued to operate for a full day under the mistaken belief that the danger had passed.

A rough reconstruction of the flooding based on anecdotal accounts, interviews, and computer modeling, shows that the huge scale of the overlapping floods – one fast, one slow – should have been clear to some officials by mid-afternoon Monday, when city representatives confirmed that the 17th Street canal floodwall had been breached.

At that point areas to the east were submerged from the earlier flooding, trapping thousands, while gradually rising waters stretched from the Lakefront across to Mid City and almost to the Central Business District.

Federal officials have referred to the levee breaches as a separate and much later event from the flooding to the east, and said that they were unaware of the gravity of the problem until Tuesday, suggesting valuable response time was lost.

“It was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the (17th Street canal) gap and that essentially the lake was going to start to drain into the city. I think that second catastrophe really caught everybody by surprise,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday, adding that he believed the breach had occurred Monday night or Tuesday morning. By that time, flooding from at least one of the two breached canals already had been under way all day Monday, evidence shows.

Even on Tuesday, as still-rising waters covered most of New Orleans, FEMA official Bill Lokey sounded a reassuring note in a Baton Rouge briefing.

“I don't want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a bowl,” Lokey said. “That's just not happening.”

Once a levee or floodwall is breached by a hurricane storm surge, engineers say, it often widens and cannot be quickly sealed. Storm surge waters in Lake Pontchartrain may take a day or more to subside, so they keep pouring into the city – most of which lies below sea level – until the levels inside and outside the levee are equal.

Experts familiar with the hurricane risks in the New Orleans area said they were stunned that no one had conveyed the information about the breaches or made clear to upper-level officials the grave risk they posed, or made an effort to warn residents about the threat after storm winds subsided Monday afternoon.

“I’m shocked. I don’t understand why the response wasn’t instantaneous,” said Louisiana State University geology professor Greg Stone, who studies coastal storm surge dynamics.

“They should have been monitoring this and informed people all the way to the top, (and) then they should have warned people,” said Ivor Van Heerden, who uses computer models at the LSU Hurricane Center to study storm surges and provided officials in the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness headquarters with data indicating the potential for flooding that could result from Katrina.

The storm approached the coast early Monday, the easterly winds from its northern quadrant pumping a rising surge into the marshy Lake Borgne area east of St. Bernard. There, two hurricane levees come together into a large V-shape. Storm surge researchers say that point acts as a giant funnel: Water pouring into the confined area rises up — perhaps as much as 20 feet in this case — and is funneled between the levees all the way into New Orleans.

The water likely topped the levees along the north side adjacent to eastern New Orleans, which average only 14 or 15 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans project manager Al Naomi.

The surge reached the Industrial Canal before dawn and quickly overflowed on both sides, the canal lockmaster reported to the Corps. At some point not long afterward, Corps officials believe a barge broke loose and crashed through the floodwall, opening a breach that accelerated flooding into the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.

The floodwaters moved quickly.

By around 8 a.m., authorities reported rising water on both sides of the Industrial Canal, in St. Bernard and eastern New Orleans. The Coast Guard reported sighting residents on rooftops in the Upper Ninth Ward. “Water is inundating everywhere,” in St. Bernard, Parish Council Chairman Joey DiFatta said.

At 9 a.m., there was 6 to 8 feet of water in the Lower Ninth Ward, state officials said. Less than two hours later, most of St. Bernard was a lake 10 feet deep. “We know people were up in the attics hollering for help,” state Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Arabi, said that morning. By 11 a.m., water was covering Interstate 10 at a low point near the high-rise over the Industrial Canal.

Sometime Monday morning, the 17th Street canal levee burst when storm surge waters pressed against it and possibly topped it, Corps officials said. Col. Richard P. Wagenaar, the corps’s site commander at 17th Street, told The Washington Post that a police officer called him Monday morning to tell him about it. He told the Post he couldn’t get to the site.

Naomi said he believes the breach occurred in the mid- or late-morning after the hurricane’s eye had passed east of the city. By that time, north winds would have pushed storm surge water in Lake Pontchartrain south against the hurricane levees and into the canals. Then the wind shifted to the west.

“As I remember it the worst of the storm had passed when we got word the floodwall had collapsed,” he said. “It could have been when we were experiencing westerly winds in the aftermath of the storm, which would have been pushing water against it.”

Naomi and other Corps officials say they believe that the water in the canal topped the levee on the Orleans Parish side, weakening its structure on the interior side and causing its collapse. However, Van Heerden said he does not believe the water was high enough in the lake to top the 14-foot wall and that the pressure caused a “catastrophic structural failure.”

It’s not clear when floodwalls in the London Avenue canal were breached, but Naomi said it may have been around the same time.

Once the floodwalls failed, water – then at about 8 feet or higher in the lake – began to pour into New Orleans from the west, beginning the full-scale nightmare emergency managers and other officials most feared. At 10 a.m., reporters from The Times-Picayune saw water rising over I-10 where it dips beneath the railway trestle south and east of the canal.

Naomi said that he believes Corps officials had communicated the information about the breaches to the Baton Rouge Office of Emergency Preparedness

“It was disseminated. It went to our OEP in Baton Rouge, to the state, FEMA, the Corps,” Naomi said. “The people in the field knew it. The people here (in Corps offices) in Louisiana and Mississippi knew it. I don’t know how communication worked in those agencies.”

Officials at the OEP could not be reached for comment. New Orleans officials were also aware of the 17th Street canal breach and publicly confirmed it at 2 p.m. Around the same time, The Times-Picayune reported 4 feet of water in one Lakeview neighborhood.

An hour later, city homeland security director Terry Ebbert listed Treme and Lakeview as among the areas hardest hit by the flooding. Ebbert said there would be casualties because many people were calling emergency workers saying they were trapped on rooftops, in trees and attics. In some cases, he said, authorities lost contact with people pleading for help.

As the day wore on, the flood crept east and south and made its way across the city, penetrating neighborhood after neighborhood.

At 3 p.m. Times-Picayune reporters found it was knee-deep under the Jefferson Davis overpass near Xavier University. A Mid-City couple stranded there said their home was surrounded by 5 feet of water. An hour later, the I-10 dip under the railroad overpass was under 15 feet of water.

George Saucier, the CEO of Lindy Boggs Medical Center south of City Park, told The Times-Picayune that water from the 17th Street breach had flowed into Bayou St. John and overflowed its banks, then followed streets like sluices on its way south, where it was starting to flood the hospital’s basement.

By late afternoon, people stranded on I-10 near the Industrial Canal could see residents on rooftops stretching across Lower Ninth Ward.

As night fell Monday, many outside of New Orleans breathed a sigh of relief believing the city had been largely spared the worse. But thousands were stranded from the Lower Ninth Ward, across St. Bernard and south to the east bank of Plaquemines Parish. And waters continued to rise overnight throughout central New Orleans. By dawn, they stretched all the way from east to west and into Uptown, and were coursing through the Central Business District. As TV helicopters flew over the city and beamed out pictures of the flooding, the extent of the catastrophe was clear.

That flooding would complicate evacuation efforts in New Orleans for days.

Whoever else knew about the breach of the 17th Street Canal sea-walls, the media -- or, at least CNN -- certainly didn't know. I was live-blogging CNN when they first heard about it from an official at Tulane University Medical Center, and my post is time-stamped for 2:30am on Tuesday morning -- i.e. late Monday night. (I also mentioned it in an update to a previous post, and marked the update as happening at 2:30am.) But the T-P time-line has the breach happening sometime mid- or late-morning on Monday, which means that the non-official outside world, relying on CNN and other electronic media, didn't know for more than 12 hours that New Orleans was flooding very widely and very badly.

Officials, of course, should have known more and better.

Which they knew, who they told, and what everyone did or didn't do will certainly be a legitimate topic of investigation (and spin and bombast) for months to come, but there is no doubt about this right now, and it requires no investigation of any sort, just common sense: FEMA knew that Katrina was likely to be a major disaster well before the storm made landfall, and certainly long before any breach of the flood-control system occured, and their response should have been in-process and in-transit at that time. At the very least, it should have been ready and waiting in the wings, needed to be activated only by confirmation of the scope of the disaster and the type of supplies and relief needed. That, after all, is the entire purpose of FEMA:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency [...] is tasked with responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters.

Where in that simple statement of fact Brown, Chertoff and Bush can find anywhere to hide their ultimate culpability for the piss-poor response to Katrina is beyond me.

Addendum: There's another time-line of Katrina events here. And Kevin Drum has a compendium of Katrina timelnes. [Update (Wed 9/14 2:00am): Also take a look at this Wall Street Journal article.]

Update (3:20am): Just to state the obvious, I want to point out the similarities between the Bush administration's responses to the call for investigation after 9/11, and after Katrina. Both times, they rejected the need for an outside commission to investigate, and resisted forming one. In both instances, Republican congressional leadership made statements to the effect that congressional investgations would be sufficient, and an outside accounting was not needed.

In the case of 9/11, the independent commission was forced on Bush and the Republicans by the intense pressure brought to bear by the 9/11 families. But they were primarily middle-class, suburban and white, with access to all the resources needed to organize effectively, lobby Congress, work the media, and make their wants known. It seems unlikely that the poor black folk of New Orleans will have the same juice, so unless Democrats keep up the pressure on Bush to appoint an independent commission, we're more than likely to end up with a stunted joint congressional investigation (joint because Senators running their own inquiry have too much potential to take the investigation into places the powers that be do not want it to go) and Bush's own absurd whitewash of an "investigation", which is likely only to place blame only on those people Bush's handlers have already decided need to be purged and scapegoated. (Look for Brown to get the ax, but perhaps not Chertoff.)

(8:40pm): John Powers has a good piece in the LA Weekly:

With any luck, this shameful performance in New Orleans (and along the coast) will finally vanquish the enduring cliché that, unlike the supposedly dreamy left, the right is competent— you know, filled with can-do Steve McQueens and Chuck Yeagers who know how to get things done. In fact, what’s startling about the Bush administration is its mind-numbing incompetence at everything but winning elections and pushing through legislation that further enriches the rich. Even those who fervently backed the invasion of Iraq say they’re staggered at how ineptly the administration has managed the peace. Two and a half years after the invasion, the Iraqi capital still only gets four hours of electricity a day, and the airport road still hasn’t been secured. Evidently Baghdad was a dry run for the watery snafus in New Orleans.

[Thanks to Peggy, who also sent me this piece about the old money elite of New Orleans]

(9:15pm): Publius, on Legal Fiction, on a different kind of response to Katrina:

[O]ne [of] the most depressing aspects of what Mark Schmitt has called "this wretched era" is that national unity in the face of a disaster is no longer possible. And I blame Bush for this. More precisely, I blame Bush’s exploitation of 9/11 because it gave rise to a collective action problem which made "defecting" the only politically rational policy. Immediately after 9/11, 99% of all Democrats rallied around Bush in the name of national unity. He became the nation’s president rather than a parliamentary leader of a majority legislative faction. In what I consider to be his most tragic decision (especially when you factor in the opportunity costs), Bush chose to transform 9/11 into a partisan bludgeon just months after the overwhelming majority of Democrats supported the war in Afghanistan and rallied around him in the name of patriotism and unity. Rather than building on that unique – and fleeting – moment in history that so few leaders enjoy, he chose to pursue a fiercely partisan, polarizing agenda. The lesson of course was that "cooperation" results in punishment (in collective-action-problem-ese). Accordingly, after 9/11, the rational (not moral) response to tragedy is to "defect" – or to use the tragedy for partisan purposes.

It’s all very depressing, but it’s a logical consequence of the polarization strategy that Bush pursued. Bush transformed the world into one giant zero-sum game where a national harm is one man’s benefit, and a national benefit is another man’s harm.

I think Publius overstates the unanimity of the Democratic rallying-around-the-President response to 9/11 -- to my perception that was pretty much evident among Democratic elected officials in Washington, but not so much at the grassroots rank-and-file level; but, then again, I'm in New York and Publius is in the south, and the local responses were very probably different. Still, his overall point is well taken, except that I wondering if you get beyond the "chattering classes" (which very much includes committed politically-oriented bloggers like Publius and myself), if some sort of unity of reaction isn't more likely to occur.

Anyway, just another reason why George W. Bush is The Man Who Wrecked America™.

[More Katrina posts]


Ed Fitzgerald | 9/08/2005 01:58:00 AM | | | | 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
2005 koufax awards


Carpetbagger Report
*Crooks and Liars*
Progressive Blog Digest


Daou Report
Media Matters
Political Animal
*Talking Points Memo*
Think Progress
James Wolcott

2004 koufax winners
2003 koufax award
"best blog" nominees
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


take all you want
but credit all you take.

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