Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Katrina was not a Hurricane

A few days ago, I heard the voice of a commentator on the radio railing about global warming. Giving examples of receding glaciers and rising sea levels, he said “Katrina was just the beginning!”

A few days later, I saw a similar article in the paper. “If you thought Katrina was bad, just wait till you see this year’s crop of hurricanes spawned by the fastest rise in global temperatures in centuries.”

As bad of a storm as it was, the fact that these commentators are forgetting is that the tragedy of Katrina was not that it was a hurricane.

Most of the people that died in Katrina actually died a couple of days after the storm struck. They were the people that foolishly stayed behind and drown in the flood.

Most of the property damage was not the result of buildings being blown over. The buildings were destroyed by the resulting flood that left them standing in water up to their eaves for weeks after the storm went by.

Did you catch that? Katrina was not a hurricane. It was a flood.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as a Category 3 hurricane, somewhat weaker than the Category 5 Hurricane Andrew that barreled across Florida over a decade ago. It was an unfortunate coincidence that a slightly stronger-than-average hurricane hit a heavily populated area. A little more to the east or west and it would have been a lot different story. A slightly stronger or weaker hurricane would have created a completely different scenario.

But there it was. A monster, but not the biggest monster ever. And not the product of increased global temperatures. Just an average hurricane that wandered into the wrong area of demographics. Literally a meteorological bull in a china closet. The bull doesn’t know how he got there or what damage he was doing. He just wants out. And that’s what Katrina was. She didn’t aim for a large population area; it just happened to be in the way.

The real tragedy was the failure of the levees.

Thousands of people had weathered the storm in their homes. Thousands more had sought refuge in the Superdome. And they all lived through the storm, wandering outside the next day to a clear sky and an uncertain future.

But then the levees broke. There is plenty of blame to pass around for the failure of the levees. They were managed by corrupt, disjunct local authorities who failed to communicate with each other. The Army Corps of Engineers now has evidence that they weren’t as structurally sound as they originally thought. The city of New Orleans failed to spend money properly that had been allocated for their maintenance. The federal government failed to properly oversee the distribution of that money. Everybody failed to heed years of warnings by engineers and in the local press that the entire levee system was a disaster waiting to happen.

Add to that, the population of New Orleans had suffered through years of corrupt Democratic rule which had trained them that the government was the solution to all their problems. So when they were told to get out of town, a large number of them decided to sit and wait, thinking they were going to be cared for. When the local government collapsed and the federal government was slow to respond, they had nowhere to turn, because they had no means or inclination to help themselves.

Katrina was a massive failure of engineering, government, and society which exacted a toll of epic proportions on the property and the population of New Orleans. But please, don’t use the words “Katrina” and “global warming” in the same sentence. They have nothing to do with each other.

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