Hurricane Katrina revisited: a book review of The Storm

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 4:56 PM GMT on March 26, 2007

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Last week's stinging report lambasting the Army Corps of Engineers for its failure to build adequate levees to protect New Orleans was written by "Team Louisiana," headed by Dr. Ivor van Heerden of Louisiana State University. He published a book last year titled, The Storm: What went wrong and why during Hurricane Katrina--the inside story from one Louisiana scientist ($17 at amazon.com.) Dr. van Heerden is cofounder and deputy directory of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes. He holds a Ph.D. in marine sciences from LSU, and serves as associate professor of civil and
environmental engineering there. Van Heerden had a very unique perspective of Katrina. He worked tirelessly in the decade leading up to the storm to improve our scientific understanding of how Louisiana's wetlands protect New Orleans from hurricanes. He also worked extensively with FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and political figures at the local, state, and U.S. Congressional levels to try to improve New Orleans' disaster readiness. In the aftermath of the storm, he provided support for the search and rescue efforts and plugging of the levee breaches, then headed one of the teams assigned to figure out what caused the levees to fail. PBS's NOVA did a nice story on him last year, featuring interviews with him from before and after Katrina.

Van Heerden is not afraid to speak his mind, and has made many enemies as a result. His criticisms in the book are far ranging, from university administrators to politicians to government administrators, particularly in FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers. Some readers may not like the amount of criticism in the book, but I had no problem with it. Those responsible for the flooding of New Orleans, failed evacuation efforts, and tragically bungled recovery effort need to be held accountable, since it is crucial that we learn from our mistakes. Van Heerden also has considerable praise for the heros of the Katrina disaster--particularly scientists, the media, and recovery workers and volunteers who responded so magnificently.

Van Heerden is a big proponent of building a flood protection system that will protect Louisiana from a Category 5 hurricane. He proposes doing this by restoring wetlands, building armored levees, and installing huge flood gates on Lake Pontchartrain, similar to what the Dutch use to protect their country from the North Sea. I especially liked his continued emphasis on the importance of doing good science. He is not a fan of what politicians and business leaders do with good science: The science is the easy part. The hard part is overcoming the narrow-mindedness and selfishness of politics and business as usual. For decades the two have undermined plan after plan to restore wetlands, build new ones, and thereby protect people and property. They have played hell with improving the existing levee system. We must do better now, or we can kiss it all good-bye for good. I was not exaggerating in the introduction when I said that politics and business as usual in Louisiana will eventually put everything below Interstate 10 underwater. Science and engineering can save the day, but not if they're censored or manipulated. If that's to be the case, just shelve them and start packing. It's over.

The author is not a smooth and gifted writer--his writing is very blunt and somewhat clumsy, despite the help of his co-author, Mike Bryan, a professional writer brought in to make the book more readable. There are two nice graphics showing the Katrina flooding and the author's proposed flood control system, but most of the graphics are poor black-and-white hand-drawn diagrams. Still, I think the book is an important one to read, since van Heerden is an expert on both the science and the politics of the Katrina disaster. I found his descriptions of all the various political battles in the years leading up to Katrina particularly fascinating. His detailed treatment of how the levee system evolved, how it failed during Katrina, and how it should be rebuilt to prevent a future disaster are also interesting. I did skip over some of the more technical engineering details of the levees he presented, which were very detailed. Overall rating for The Storm: two and a half stars.

Van Heerden is pessimistic that the politicians and Army Corps of Engineers can be trusted to make the right decisions to bring about what Louisiana needs--protection from a Category 5 hurricane. Yet, he will continue to battle on for this goal, concluding the book with this cry to action:

As a nation, lets take up the "Rebuild!" battle cry. Now is the time to put politics, egos, turf wars, and profit agendas aside. We owe it to the thirteen hundred Americans who died in the Katrina tragedy. We owe it to their survivors and to all future generations. It's now or never. Let's show the world what we're all about, here in America in the twenty-first century.

I'll have a new blog Wednesday or Thursday.
Jeff Masters

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103. jake436
8:22 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
I believe they changed that to a Cat 1, MP. If you look at the archives from '05, you can see the Miami radar loop of Katrina, and it most definitely developed an eye before striking the east coast of FL.
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102. MisterPerfect
8:21 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Katrina was reduced to a tropical storm.

Katrina hit Florida as TS
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101. jake436
8:20 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Yes, Katrina was a very minimal Cat 1 when it hit FL anyway, so of course it went down a little. But that part of FL doesn't do much to tear storms up, does it. Seems like Andrew was hardly fazed. Andrew was a Cat 4 until right before landfall with LA.
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100. pcshell
3:16 PM EST on March 26, 2007
katrina was still pretty weAK in comparison when she went acrossed us
99. pcshell
3:14 PM EST on March 26, 2007
i lived in south florida for andrew and he was very small and quick went of the very southern portion which was actually not very much land at all
98. MichaelSTL
3:10 PM CDT on March 26, 2007
Andrew did continue to hit LA in '92 but Fla chewed him up and the shear got him a bit...

I doubt that Florida actually did much to Andrew - it was still a Category 4 after crossing back into the Gulf; by comparison, Katrina was reduced to a tropical storm.
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97. LouisC
8:05 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Right after Katrina, van Heerden was a media star. He traveled with a New Orleans television crew to the Netherlands and filed numerous reports on the "Dutch solution." There was much talk about building a floodgate on Lake Ponchartrain. The enthusiasm for the Dutch flood protection was such that you imagined that planning for similar flood works would commence within the year. Nineteen months later, you don't hear much about it. You hear more calls to do something about restoring the wetlands; but you also hear discussions of how a proposed "great wall of levees" around southeastern Louisiana may kill the wetlands. Some have suggested “leaky levees” to allow replenishing the wetlands. Others have criticized the plan as unproven.

It's not just a matter of finding the best scientifically correct solution; there's also the problem of financing these multi-billion-dollar projects. Unfortunately, while billions were sent to Gulf Coast for recovery after Katrina, that largess has been harder to come by when finding money to keep another Katrina from happening. No one seems to believe that an ounce of prevention is worth it.

While most projects await Congressional action, some projects aren’t waiting for federal aid. A 72-mile system of “leaky” levees, culverts, floodgates and locks in southeast Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish is estimated to cost $888 million. Touted as Terrebonne’s last hope for hurricane protection, the parish and levee district have started construction with money raised by the state and a local sales tax.

But over a billion dollars of federal money originally slated for levee repair on the east bank of New Orleans has been transferred to west bank projects and the Louisiana congressional delegation is fearful that it will not now be replaced.

Louisiana finally got a share of the oil royalties from off-shore drilling and that money could be used by the state for flood protection. But it will be 10 years before those royalties reach more than a couple of hundred million a year. Not really the billions required for massive flood projects. The state could sell off its anticipated revenues get more money immediately as it did with some of the tobacco settlement revenue; but that greatly reduces the state’s eventual take.

Of course, all of these projects take time to build. So the best new improvements New Orleans will have to count on for the foreseeable future are floodgates at the mouths of the outfall canals whose breaches flooded the city and armoring of the levees that were overtopped in the eastern part of the city.

But some monumentally important questions continue to go unanswered. Most importantly, what did Congress authorize the Corps to build in 1965? Category 3 protection? Is that “most severe combination of meteorological conditions reasonably expected?” Should the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet be closed? Who should pay? Will rising sea levels and continuing subsidence eventually doom New Orleans?

These are the kinds of questions that create paralysis. But, I agree with van Heerden that the problems aren’t insurmountable. Over 100 years ago, giant pumping stations were built on the city’s outfall canals allowing the swamp north of the French Quarter enabling the expansion of the city to the Lake. W. H. Bell, the city surveyor, suggested that the pumping stations be built on the Lake at the mouth of the canals. That idea was vetoed and the stations were constructed several miles away from the Lake. That decision may have made sense then because the city hadn’t expanded to the Lake. Sixty years later, the swamp was drained, communities settled all the way to the Lake. After hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Corps suggested that floodgates be constructed at the mouths of the drain canals. That idea was vetoed by the city because of fear that the city would flood from rainwater that couldn’t be pumped out fast enough because of closed floodgates. Forty years later, New Orleans floods from water from Lake Ponchartrain flowing through the open mouths of the drain canals and undermining the floodwalls along the drainage canals.

Had the pumping stations been constructed at the mouth of the canals or had the floodgates been constructed, the breaches in the outfall canals in 2005 might never have happened. Finally, the Corps has been allowed to construct the floodgates. It only took flooding New Orleans to get it done. Now, if the Corps can only get those pumps it put in to work.

My fear is that a few years without major hurricanes and everyone will become lethargic and complacent. We knew for years that New Orleans could flood. Dr. van Heerden’s Hurricane Pam exercise in 2004 predicted what would happen. Did it move our political leaders to action? And, of course, Katrina wasn’t even as strong as computer-generated Pam.



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96. jake436
2:03 PM CST on March 26, 2007
Also, Andrew had really just gotten it's act together right before it came ashore at Homestead. It hadn't been building up surge for several days like Katrina had. Like CB said, it was a faster mover, too.
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95. jake436
1:55 PM CST on March 26, 2007
CB, you said what I was trying to say...better. Bigger fetch, that's it.

MP, yes, Andrew had wound down a good bit before hitting LA. Still, the devestation was incredible, it just didn't hit NOLA, so nobody really knew about it...plus it was only 2 days after it smacked Homestead.

Camille was very similar in size to Andrew, even smaller. But the devestation was indeed terrible. Most of the people along the MS coast figured if they didn't get water with Camille, they wouldn't ever get water. Katrina proved a lot of them wrong. Less powerful, but MUCH larger...bigger fetch. Camille surged about 20-24 feet
Katrina surged about 24-30 feet in the same area along the MS Gulf Coast.
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94. hurricane23
3:58 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Of course it does...
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93. MisterPerfect
7:49 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
If Andrew had dodged Miami and the Keys and gone through the straits north of Cuba and then made a jog North toward the MS,LA coast, imagine that. Andrew did continue to hit LA in '92 but Fla chewed him up and the shear got him a bit...

You just never know, a tight spun buzz-saw 'cane like Andrew can definetly hit the gulf coast and I'd hate to see the destruction there, the water in the gulf is considerably warmer than the east Atlantic coast of FL.
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91. MichaelSTL
2:53 PM CDT on March 26, 2007
This image shows the cold water being upwelled along the equator very well:



Also, SST anomalies follow changes in atmospheric circulation, so the atmsophere is already exhibiting La Nina patterns (however, shear is still very high because it normally is high at this time of the year).
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90. jake436
1:52 PM CST on March 26, 2007
Yes I know, but so did Camille. Cat 5 at landfall, 180 mph or so. The surge was far worse in Katrina. As they say, size matters...lol
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89. hurricane23
3:48 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Andrew was very small and compact but had a core of extremely strongs winds.
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88. hurricane23
3:47 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Indeed STL.
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87. jake436
1:31 PM CST on March 26, 2007
Don't know if it's been answered, but someone asked why Andrew's surge wasn't as bad as a typical Cat-5 should be, and Katrina's was so bad. Katrina, being only a Cat 3 at landfall, produced far more surge. It has to do with the water being extremely shallow along the LA/MS Gulf Coast. At Waveland, a man can literally walk into the water, and literally a mile later, still be standing with half his body above the waterline. Go ten miles out, and you're talking about maybe 12 feet deep. The surge just piles up on this shallow approach, and is magnified. I'm no expert on the area offshore from Miami, but I do know that it gets deep in a hurry. Also, Katrina was far larger than Andrew, and right before landfall, was also a good bit stronger than Andrew. Just because it made landfall as a Cat 3 doesn't mean the surge goes down as fast as the winds did. That water had been piling up for days, and with her being so large, that also magnifies the surge. Regardless, a Cat 1 or 2 making a direct hit on the LA/MS coast is going to have more surge than a Cat 4 or 5 in S. Florida. Just the topography. I know a lot of people were amazed down there when Wilma created 7-8 foot surge on the west coast of Florida. Waveland would get that with a Cat 1.
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86. MichaelSTL
2:46 PM CDT on March 26, 2007
Worldwide SST anomalies - notice La Nina:


Link
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85. hurricane23
3:42 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Posted By: Hellsniper223 at 3:41 PM EDT on March 26, 2007.

Could somone link me the SST anomalies?




More Here
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84. Hellsniper223
7:34 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Could somone link me the SST anomalies?
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83. hurricane23
3:32 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
More models here.
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82. TS2
7:29 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
60 knots by the looks of it
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81. hurricane23
3:28 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Not a chance in between 30-60kt shear.
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80. hurricanic
7:29 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Just by looking at the water vapor, I would say the shear is quite bad.
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79. hurricanic
7:25 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
I think it would just be easier to wait until a storm actually forms, but, of course, I am basing that on how the 2004 season was.

We all recall our thoughts on what we expected in June and July, and we all were wrong.

In the mean time, I think it would be a good idea to enjoy the nice weather and the severe weather, if any.
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77. TS2
7:25 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
To tell you the truth...i don't want to find out
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76. hurricane23
3:22 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Its very early in the game to really know what areas are likely to be threaten this season.Give it a few months and we might have a better idea.
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75. Hellsniper223
7:13 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Ahh... this suspence is killing me...
So, like 2004, eh? I Hope I don't get bashed like I did in Ivan. That was mortifying.
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74. TS2
7:18 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
.
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73. MichaelSTL
2:18 PM CDT on March 26, 2007
Wilma in that October 19 picture had to be a category 6 hurricane if there was such a designation

LOL... Actually, I agree with that; here is another image (click to enlarge; the full-size image shows the tiny eye very clearly; the eye itself is the black dot in the middle of the large image):

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72. hurricane23
3:17 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Extra tropical is correct...SST'S are running very cool in that area.


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71. hurricanic
7:15 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Probably a "pseudoeye."
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70. Tazmanian
12:13 PM PDT on March 26, 2007
is that a eye ?
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69. hurricanic
7:11 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
I doubt that, taz. That's clearly extra-tropical.
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68. hurricane23
3:11 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
No taz this is no were being tropical in nature.Just overall structure looks similar.
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67. Tazmanian
12:08 PM PDT on March 26, 2007
look like we have are 1st name storm
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66. hurricanic
7:08 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Whoa, that's cool.
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65. hurricane23
3:08 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Looks like a hurricane on this visible off in the north atlantic.




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64. hurricanic
7:07 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Hurricane23, check your mail box.
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63. skubaaruba
7:00 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Wilma in that October 19 picture had to be a category 6 hurricane if there was such a designation.
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62. weatherboykris
6:39 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Nice one
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61. hurricane23
2:32 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
One more...


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60. weatherboykris
6:31 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Thanks
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59. hurricane23
2:31 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Here are some kris...


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58. hurricane23
2:27 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
Getting her act together....


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57. weatherboykris
6:27 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
(In deep voice)"From humble beginnings!"
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56. hurricane23
2:25 PM EDT on March 26, 2007
How it all began!


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55. weatherboykris
6:24 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Do you have any microwave images?
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54. weatherboykris
6:24 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
Didn't it have a small eye for such a large CDO?
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53. weatherboykris
6:23 PM GMT on March 26, 2007
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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