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Hurricane Katrina revisited: a book review of The Storm

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

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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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.