Katrina: The Big One Or Just a Warning Shot?

Worse yet to come: Hurricane Katrina left wreckage along the Industrial Canal levee in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2005. Will the city be ready for a larger storm?
Worse yet to come: Hurricane Katrina left wreckage along the Industrial Canal levee in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2005. Will the city be ready for a larger storm? (By Michel Ducille -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Hurricane Katrina was America's deadliest natural disaster since the Florida hurricane of 1928, which killed 2,500 people in the Everglades. And the parallels were uncanny: The ignored warnings. The Category 4 winds. The levee failures. The giant lake unleashed upon the people of the lowlands. Most of them poor. Most of them black.

The storm of 1928 led to a radical overhaul of Florida's flood-control system. For better and for worse, the policies adopted after the disaster helped transform the state's southern thumb from sparsely inhabited swampland into a sprawling suburban megalopolis. They also helped cripple the Everglades, which is now the subject of the largest-ever environmental restoration project.

When Katrina drowned New Orleans, I had just finished a book about Florida and the Everglades, so I had flashbacks to 1928. I wondered whether history would repeat itself, or whether New Orleans could rebuild without replicating the ecological mistakes of South Florida. Katrina raised so many similar questions about the unintended consequences of man's control over nature, the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, coastal development, wetland protection and race.

But six months later, I wonder whether 1928 is the right analogy at all. The Army Corps is struggling to rebuild its levees to pre-Katrina Category 3 levels, even though its pre-Katrina flood-control system was obviously inadequate. And weather data suggest that Katrina's winds were no stronger than Category 2 when they hit New Orleans, and possibly just Category 1.

Katrina still calls to mind Florida hurricanes. But it's starting to remind me more of 1926 than 1928. As awful as it sounds, Katrina may have been the warning shot, not the Big One.

South Florida's Gold Coast enjoyed one of history's wildest land rushes in the first half of the 1920s. Miami's population quintupled, while Boca Raton and other boomtowns sprouted on the beach. But like modern New Orleans, which was losing population even before Katrina, the Everglades farming region below Lake Okeechobee missed the boom. "There is something the matter with the Everglades," complained Howard Sharp, the caustic editor of the Everglades News.

That something was water. The Everglades, a vast sheet of water trickling through saw grass from Lake O down to the tip of the peninsula, still covered most of South Florida back then, and the canals that were supposed to drain it for agriculture and development were not doing the job. And while the Palm Beach Post proclaimed that a new earthen dike designed to stop the lake from spilling into the Everglades would provide "absolute insurance against any future overflow," it was really just a squishy pile of muck and sand, only five to nine feet tall.

Still, few of South Florida's newcomers fretted about storms. The last intense hurricane had hit in 1906, when the region was almost empty. And when a Category 2 hurricane brushed Miami in July 1926 without inflicting major damage, it only seemed to confirm that "there is more risk to life in venturing across a busy street," as the Miami Herald put it. The U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologist in Miami declared that the region had nothing to fear.

But that summer, as heavy rains raised Okeechobee to the edge of its dike, Sharp warned that "the lake is truly at a level so high as to make a perilous situation in the event of a storm," and begged the state to release some of its water. Still, the state's top engineer, Fred Elliot, proclaimed that Everglades lands were "safer from flood or overflow than any other place in the state of Florida." An engineer in the Everglades later recalled that when he received a telegram about an incoming hurricane on Sept. 17, "nobody seemed to be alarmed."

That night, Miami was pummeled by its worst storm ever, with 140 mile per hour gusts and 15-foot storm surges. It shredded the Gold Coast as mercilessly as Katrina would later shred the Mississippi coast. "The intensity of the storm and the wreckage that it left cannot be adequately described," a chastened federal meteorologist wrote. Martial law was declared in Miami, and 11 people were shot for looting. The Florida boom abruptly ended with the disaster, although the University of Miami gamely opened its doors a month later, which is why its teams are nicknamed the Hurricanes.

But like Katrina, the Great Miami Hurricane did its worst damage after passing the coast, barreling northwest to Lake Okeechobee and turning Sharp into a prophet. The swollen lake sloshed south like a 730-square-mile saucer tipped on its side, just as Lake Pontchartrain would tilt during Katrina. Lake O then ripped through its flimsy muck dike, blasting a wall of water through the town of Moore Haven. Some residents managed to scramble to their roofs, but "scores of men, women and children were drowned like rats in a trap in the first rush of the flooding waters," as one survivor wrote. Nearly 400 people were killed, but they would soon be forgotten, because an even ghastlier catastrophe was on the way.

The hurricane of 1926 sparked, well, not much.

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