Hurricane Katrina: The Aftermath

The Great Unknowns

1928 West Palm Beach, Fla.  The Great Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of Sept. 16 also hit Palm Beach County, where winds of more than 130 miles an hour left a path of destruction. The actual death toll from the Category 3 storm will never be known, but is believed to be more than 2,500.
1928 West Palm Beach, Fla. The Great Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of Sept. 16 also hit Palm Beach County, where winds of more than 130 miles an hour left a path of destruction. The actual death toll from the Category 3 storm will never be known, but is believed to be more than 2,500. (Historical Society Of Palm Beach County Via South Florida Sun-sentinel)
By Willie Drye
Sunday, September 11, 2005

Of all the countless questions that will have to be asked when investigations into the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina get underway, perhaps the first should be this: "How many local, state and federal administrators in charge of disaster management have actually been through a hurricane?"

When a Category 4 hurricane like Katrina reaches full roar, its energy can be expressed only in terms of the explosions of multiple atomic bombs. Unless you've experienced a major hurricane, it's all too easy to underestimate its awful power. Grasping its real danger requires something that so many of us find hard to do -- acknowledging that there's a force in this world that's powerful beyond our comprehension and against which we are helpless.

Politicians seem to find this kind of self-effacement especially difficult, and their unwillingness to acknowledge how little they know has led to disaster more than once. Katrina may be only the latest example of clueless leaders mishandling a crisis because they didn't realize the deadly consequences of ignorance.

Many times in the past century, stunned survivors and political leaders groped for explanations of how a hurricane could have caught so many people unprepared and inflicted so much death and destruction. Each time, determined investigators vowed to find out what went wrong. Those charged with looking into Katrina might find some useful guidance in the questions asked in those earlier inquiries. Although the times and places were different, there's a sad consistency in the mistakes that were made, the tragedies that resulted, and the lessons that apparently weren't learned.

Any inquiry into this most recent disaster might want answers to these broad questions:

Did the people in charge of emergency management really understand New Orleans's unusual vulnerability to a powerful hurricane?

The weaknesses in the levees protecting New Orleans -- much of which is below sea level and surrounded by water -- didn't appear a month ago. Since Katrina, it's been widely reported that many public officials at many levels knew the levees couldn't withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Also, on June 29 of this year, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, told a congressional subcommittee on disaster prevention that the United States "is more vulnerable to a hurricane catastrophe today than at any time in our nation's history." Mayfield said that storm surge is a hurricane's deadliest weapon, "especially in hard-to-evacuate areas like the Florida Keys and New Orleans." He also told the committee that about 85 percent of U.S. coastal residents had never been through the worst of a major hurricane.

Was anyone at all listening when Mayfield made his presentation? Did any of these warnings sink in with emergency management officials at any level? Was there no money available to at least reduce the threat of flooding in New Orleans thatwould be caused by a powerful hurricane, which was certain to strike sooner or later? Did local, state or federal politics prevent work from being done on the New Orleans levees? Politics has taken precedence in other storm situations, with spectacularly tragic results.

In 1928, political leaders were very familiar with the dangers caused by flooding whenever hurricanes passed near Florida's huge Lake Okeechobee. But they couldn't stop squabbling over whether to build a flood control system -- until a massive hurricane blew across the lake in September and shoved a wall of water through several towns, killing at least 2,000 people. Work on a massive levee started the next year.

What happened with the lines of communication? Who was supposed to be communicating with whom, and did everyone understand what was being said?

As Hurricane Katrina departed the Gulf Coast, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security officials were claiming that New Orleans residents were being helped even as TV blared news reports of violent chaos at the Superdome and dramatic pleas for help from Mayor Ray Nagin. The ludicrous contrast undoubtedly made millions of viewers question whether anyone in Washington was talking to anyone in Louisiana, or vice versa. Watching and reading reports of the awkwardness and coolness between President Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- each seemed to be wordlessly blaming the other for the stumbling and inadequate response -- was enough to make you wonder whether this is the current example of a communications breakdown setting up a catastrophe.

After Katrina, timely federal aid would have saved lives and reduced suffering. Investigators need to find out whether there was a clearly defined plan for sending federal aid, how it was to be set in motion, and who was supposed to make the first call to whom. In the aftermath, I heard one U.S. mayor on TV say that he understood that federal aid in a disaster would be automatically triggered after 72 hours, while another said he expected it after 48. Which is it? Katrina reached Category 5 intensity a day before it made landfall. Was anyone in FEMA aware of this, and had anyone bothered to pick up the phone and touch base with Louisiana officials before the storm hit? Conversely, did local officials ask Washington to stand by?

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