Hurricane Katrina – Was Flooding Really a Surprise?

(Hurricane Katrina resources)

One of the post-Katrina myths is that no one expected the city to flood. It is true that no politician ever used the f-word when calling for evacuations. This was the single deadliest mistakes in the response to Katrina – New Orleans has never suffered widespread deadly wind damage, so the only scary reason to leave is the threat of flooding. In 2002, the TIMES-PICAYUNE ran a very bold and brave series of articles about risk of hurricane flooding in New Orleans:

Washing Away – This story made it clear that New Orleans was at high risk of flooding, that the levees were in terrible shape, and that even a moderate hurricane could inundate the city.

GOING UNDER (Graphic) – Hurricane Betsy flooded New Orleans with attic-high water in 1965, accelerating a massive public works effort to protect the
area from storm surge and flooding. But advances in computer modeling show that dangerous weak spots in the levees could result in a catastrophic flood. Erosion and subsidence make south Louisiana all the more vulnerable to hurricanes.

LAST LINE OF DEFENSE: HOPING THE LEVEES HOLD (Graphic) – Army Corps of Engineers officials say hurricane levees in the New Orleans area will protect residents from a Category 3 hurricane moving rapidly over the area. But computer models indicate even weaker storms could find chinks in that armor.

Roger D Congleton, The story of Katrina: New Orleans and the political economy of catastrophe, 127 Public Choice 5–30 (2006).

Great analysis of the politics leading to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

The real story behind the failed evacuation was not lack of cars – you only had to walk the streets and see cars downed in the driveways of houses where bodies were found to know that most people made a choice to not leave. That was because, based on what they were told, there was little reason to leave. Had the state and local authorities said, “Get out of New Orleans at any cost, we are going to flood and drown everyone,” folks would like have made very different choices. (Especially if they had been told this a little earlier.)

So, why no f-word? Simple political odds making. New Orleans had not flooded with a hurricane since Betsy in 1965. (It had also not been hit with a hurricane since 1965.) During that time there had been several successful, last minute evacuations. Or at least they had been declared successful by the politicians, even though the media had always been able to find plenty of people in interview left in New Orleans. Had Katrina not flooded New Orleans, the Katrina evacuation would have been declared a success. Just as the Gustave evacuation was declared a success, just as every evacuation will be a success unless the city floods so you can count the bodies.

So, 40 years of false alarms. The down side of using the f-word is that it would have ended the plausible denial that New Orleans could flood that was crucial to the New Orleans economy and real estate market. For 40 years, politicians had won the bet, why not one more time? That was why there were no preparations for an evacuation, no matter the promises in the Hurricane Pam exercise – it was unacceptable to admit that New Orleans would flood, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Hurricane Pam Exercise

Less than a year before Katrina, the feds and locals did a major exercise that eerily anticipated the events of Hurricane Katrina. The state and local governments made extensive representations about their preparedness and resources available to manage the exercise storm. In the actual event, all of these representations turned out to be false.

Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Functional Plan, August 6, 2004 (wrap-up)

Preparing For A Catastrophe: The Hurricane Pam Exercise Hearing Before The Committee On Homeland Security And Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, One Hundred Ninth Congress, Second Session, January 24, 2006.

Hurricane Pam, in Congressional Reports: H. Rpt. 109-377 – A Failure of Initiative: Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina (February 15, 2006)

Hurricane Betsy

It is useful to compare the recover from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 with Hurricane Katrina. Nearly as much flooding caused far fewer deaths.

Forrest, Thomas R., Hurricane, Betsy, 1965; A Selective Analysis Of Organizational Response In The New Orleans Area, Disaster Research Center (1979) (catalog entry and original link)

More generally, see: Congressional Reports: H. Rpt. 109-377 – A Failure of Initiative: Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina (February 15, 2006)

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