New Orleans: A Disaster Waiting to Happen
by George E. Curry
I am angry. I am angry at the mayor of New Orleans. I am angry at the governor of Louisiana. I am angry at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I am angry at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), now part of the Department of Homeland Security. I am angry at George W. Bush. I am angry because they were warned last November that New Orleans was one of the "Disasters Waiting to Happen" – and did nothing about it. Consequently, hundreds, if not thousands, of people are dead. Needlessly.
In an eerie prediction of what happened as a result of Hurricane Katrina, an article titled, "What if Hurricane Ivan Had Not Missed New Orleans?" was published in the Natural Hazards Observer, a major journal headquartered at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It was written by Shirley Laska of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans. In other words, this was an article written by a reputable author in a reputable national publication that should have been read by people involved in disaster relief. If they had taken heed, many of the dead in New Orleans would be alive today.
Under the headline, "What if Ivan Had Hit New Orleans?" the author wrote, "New Orleans was spared this time, but had it not been, Hurricane Ivan would have:
- Pushed a 17-foot storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain;
- Caused the levees between the lake and the city to overtop and fill the city ˜bowl' with water from lake levee to river levee, in some places as deep as 20 feet;
- Flooded the north shore suburbs as much as seven miles inland; and
- Inundated inhabited areas south of the Mississippi River.
"Up to 80 percent of the structures in these flooded areas would have been severely damaged from wind and water. The potential for such extensive flooding and the resulting damage is the result of a levee system that is unable to keep up with the increasing flood threats from a rapidly eroding coastline and thus unable to protect the ever-subsiding landscape."
Until I read this article, I had said one of the positive things that I hoped would come out of this disaster is that relief experts would realize that they need to make special provisions for the poor, elderly and homeless. In essence, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Now, however, I realize that there is no benefit in doubt.
The warning was there in black and white:
"For those without means, the medically challenged, residents without personal transportation, and the homeless, evacuation requires significant assistance."
Laska spelled it out in even more detail.
During Hurricane Ivan in 2004, she continues, ˜Residents who did not have personal transportation were unable to evacuate even if they wanted to.
Approximately 120,000 residents (51,000 housing units x 2.4 persons/unit) do not have cars.
"A proposal made after the evacuation from Hurricane Georges to use public transit buses to assist in their evacuation out of the city was not implemented for Ivan. If Ivan had struck New Orleans directly it is estimated that 40-60,000 residents of the area would have perished."
The additional problem of people having the means to leave, but refusing to do so was addressed in the article.
"Researchers have estimated that prior to a ˜big one,' approximately 700,000 residents of the greater New Orleans area (out of 1.2 million) would evacuate," Laska wrote. "In the case of Hurricane Ivan, officials estimate that up to 600,000 evacuated from metropolitan New Orleans between daybreak on Monday, September 13 and noon on Wednesday, September 13, when the storm turned and major roads started to clear...
"The fact that 600,000 residents evacuated means an equal number did not. Recent evacuation surveys show that two thirds of nonevacuees with the means to evacuate chose not to leave because they felt safe in their homes. Other nonevacuees with means relied on a cultural tradition of not leaving or were discouraged by negative experiences with past evacuations."
Those that dismiss environmentalists as kooks, should pay special attention to the observations about marshes.
"Loss of the coastal marshes that dampened earlier storm surges puts the city at increasing risk to hurricanes," the article noted. "Eighty years of substantial river leveeing has prevented spring flood deposition of new layers of sediment into the marshes, and a similarly lengthy period of marsh excavation activities related to oil and gas exploration and transportation canals for the petrochemical industry have threatened marsh integrity."
Using the Hurricane Ivan model to predict what would happen if a major hurricane struck New Orleans, Laska wrote: "Should this disaster become a reality, it would undoubtedly be one of the greatest disasters, if not the greatest, to hit the United States, with estimated costs exceeding 100 billion dollars. According to the Red Cross, such an event could be even more devastating than a major earthquake in California. Survivors would have to endure conditions never before experienced in a North American disaster."
It ended, "The hurricane scenario for New Orleans that these conveying risks portend is almost unimaginable. Hurricane Ivan had the potential to make the unthinkable a reality. Next time New Orleans may not be so fortunate."
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com. He appears on National Public Radio (NPR) three times a week as part of "News and Notes with Ed Gordon." In addition, his radio commentary is syndicated each week by Capitol Radio News Service (301/588-1993). To contact Curry or to book him for a speaking engagement, go to his Web site, http://www.georgecurry.com.