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Why New Orleans Flooded

Monday, 12 September 2005 12:00 AM

Lying an average of seven feet below sea level, surrounded by the waters of Lake Ponchartrain, the Mississippi River and Lake Borgne, which separates Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico, and protected by a series of sinking levees, the city of New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen.

It happened on August 29, 2005, just as the city was breathing a collective sigh of relief that hurricane Katrina had not been as bad as predicted.

It turned out to be far worse, not because of the destructive winds of a Category Four hurricane, but because three massive walls of water spurred by those winds inundated many parts of the city after the winds moved away.

As politicians play the blame game, many facts about the roots of the disaster have either been overlooked or deliberately ignored because they are inconvenient to those seeking to put the onus for the tragedy upon their political targets. One of them was the story behind the flood that turned a major disaster into a catastrophe of immense magnitude.

In a fact-filled retrospective that told the full story, the Wall Street Journal explained in great detail just what happened when much of the Big Easy became an adjunct of Lake Ponchartrain.

The Journal told the truth, but the truth hurts when you are seeking to put your spin on the assignment of blame. So the remainder of the media simply ignored a story the American people are entitled to know.

Among the facts exposed of the Journal which the mainstream media has studiously ignored:

According to engineers, scientists, local officials and the accounts of nearly 90 survivors of Katrina interviewed by the Journal, the first of the three waves swept from the north out of Lake Pontchartrain.

The wave of undetermined height poured over 15-foot-high levees along the Industrial Canal, which were several feet lower than others in the central areas of the city. Wrote the Journal: "About the same time, a similar wave exploded without warning across Lake Borgne, which separates Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico. It filled the lake, engulfed its surrounding marshes, raced over levees and poured into eastern New Orleans."

The barge's remains were found lying on the bottom of the gap. An early eyewitness reported seeing the barge smash through the levee. His report was never followed up by the media.

Shea Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans, said that break was particularly surprising because one of the levee breaks was "along a section that was just upgraded."

"It did not have an earthen levee," Dr. Penland told the New York Times. "It had a vertical concrete wall several feel thick."

The Industrial Canal, now operated and maintained mostly by the federal government, which the Journal described as "the area's defining presence since it was built in the 1920s," has been damaged by the passage of time and heavy use.

Barges and ships were routinely delayed because of growing traffic levels and the lock was "literally falling apart at the hinges" in 1998, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report, which called it an "antique" and recommended replacing it.

The lock replacement project didn't get very far because Ninth Ward residents complained about noise and launched a legal fight that bogged down the work.

The levees along the Industrial Canal's eastern side are supposed to stand at a height of 15 feet, according to the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Joseph Suhayda, a retired Louisiana State University coastal oceanographer, who told the Journal he suspects the levees aren't actually that tall, partly due to sinking of the land beneath them. Mr. Suhayda now consults for a maker of flood-protection barriers. If he's right, that would mean the levees weren't high enough to handle even a Category 2 or 3 hurricane. Katrina was nearly a Category 5.

The Corps of Engineers concedes some of its levees in the area "have settled and need to be raised to provide" the level of protection for which they were designed, according to a fact sheet on the Corps's Web site dated May 23, 2005. But federal budget shortfalls in fiscal 2005 and 2006 "will prevent the Corps from addressing these pressing needs." Even had sufficient funds been available the work could not have been completed in time to prevent the Katrina floods.

In an earlier September 2 story the Journal noted that in Louisiana, coastal wetlands provide some shelter from surging seawater, but more than one million acres of coastal wetlands have been lost since 1930 due to development and construction of levees and canals. For every square mile of wetland lost, storm surges rise by one foot.

"Moreover, the levees in New Orleans were built to keep the city from being flooded by the Mississippi, but instead caused it to fall below sea level. Now the Gulf of Mexico has moved into the city," says the Journal.

As the hurricane rolled into New Orleans, scores of boats broke free or sank. In the Industrial Canal, the gush of water broke a barge from its moorings. It isn't known whose barge it was. The huge steel hull became a water-borne missile. It hurtled into the canal's eastern flood wall just north of the major street passing through the Lower Ninth Ward, leading officials to theorize that the errant barge triggered the 500-foot breach. Water poured into the neighborhood.

When the storm was over, the barge was resting inside the hole. "Based on what I know and what I saw, the Lower Ninth Ward, Chalmette, St. Bernard, their flooding was instantaneous," said Col. Rich Wagenaar of the Army Corps.

It didn't help that the Mississippi River, which runs along the southern border of these neighborhoods, rose 11 feet between Sunday and Monday mornings. Coastal experts say that could have worsened flooding by limiting the water's escape route.

As the water roaring out of the Industrial Canal turned the streets of eastern New Orleans into rivers, the same areas were hit from the other side by the storm surge coming off Lake Borgne. Engineers say the estimated 20-foot surge also appeared to overflow levees just north of St. Bernard Parish. Shrimp boats were dumped in a marshy section between Lake Borgne and the city.

The city of New Orleans issued a "Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan" for hurricanes well before Katrina arrived. The city accepted the responsibility for issuing a warning, ordering and managing evacuation, arranging for buses for those without any other transportation, setting up and maintaining shelters, and other critical duties.

As one editorialist wrote, "Given the corruption in municipal agencies - one not necessarily cynical Louisiana politician (Billy Tauzin) said some time ago that "Half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment" - it was inevitable that a picture of responsibilities unfulfilled would emerge after a storm like Katrina."

Among the city's self-proclaimed responsibilities was the job of the mayor to order an evacuation 48 hours before the hurricane came ashore, not 24, hours, as Mayor Nagin did; the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority was meant to "position supervisors and dispatch evacuation buses" to evacuate at least some of the "100,000 citizens of New Orleans [who] do not have means of personal transportation," but it did not, and the flood claimed the buses.

Moreover, the city was responsible for establishing shelters co-ordinated with "food and supply distribution sites" which the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and others were to provision, but the city did not.

Both agencies provided the supplies but as Fox cable News correspondent Major Garret revealed, they were barred by local authorities from delivering them to those stranded in the city at places such as the Superdome who most needed them in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

As the Journal reported on September 2, city officials appear to have been well aware of their responsibilities. As late Aug. 1, officials close to the planning confirmed to the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the transit authority had developed plans to use its own buses, school buses, and even trains to move refugees from the city when disaster struck.

Part of its "Future Plans" section, for example, concerns the levees. It also includes discussion of "the preparation of a post-disaster plan that will identify programs and actions that will reduce of eliminate the exposure of human life and property to natural hazards."

In 9,000 words, there are only four references to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Nowhere, not even in a section on catastrophic events, do the words "Department of Homeland Security" appear.

The city declared that its hurricane preparedness procedures were "designed to deal with the anticipation of a direct hit from a major hurricane." Such a hurricane hit, and New Orleans was not prepared. The first questions that legislators in Washington and in Baton Rouge should be asking are simple: Why didn't the buses run? Why were people left to starve? Where did all those dollars go?

What the Journal reported showed the immense magnitude of the disaster and explained what created a catastrophe beyond anything most people in New Orleans anticipated. The real cause of the tragedy lay in the history of the city's below sea level location – a fact that can be traced back to the city's founding.

The attempts to prevent the Mississippi from rising over its banks and flooding the area has been a recurring problem, as have the miscalculations surrounding the ability of the dikes to deal with storms even less severe than Hurricane Katrina.

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Lying an average of seven feet below sea level, surrounded by the waters of Lake Ponchartrain, the Mississippi River and Lake Borgne, which separates Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico, and protected by a series of sinking levees, the city of New Orleans was a...
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Monday, 12 September 2005 12:00 AM
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