Hurricane Katrina—A review of events

August 2006 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
As we approach the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, our columnist reviews the 700-page book, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, by Douglas Brinkley.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.

As we approach the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I thought it appropriate to write a brief review of the 700-page book, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, by Douglas Brinkley, recently published by Harper Collins. I heartily recommend this book to all civil engineers, and especially to those involved in hydrology and hydraulic engineering. If you have ever cut corners in your design for either political or economic reasons, I believe that after reading this book you will think twice about such a policy in the future.

However, in what I consider the author’s most questionable statement—a prediction rather than an historic fact—Brinkley, a professor of history at Tulane University in New Orleans, states on the flyleaf of his book, "I have no doubt that New Orleans will recover, in time, from Hurricane Katrina. But America, as a nation, will never get over what happened." If recovery means becoming again what it once was, I don’t think that will happen. In fact, the safety of the city probably will be improved by better flood control and other measures that are certain to be implemented as a result of the disaster, if the uncontestable detrimental effects of global warming, caused by man’s influence on the environment, are taken into account.

As far as America is concerned, the deluge certainly will affect how we perceive the potential for catastrophic events. As a nation, we have a truer picture of what can happen to us when nature and man confront one another. In those encounters, humanity tends to be the loser.

The first 624 pages of The Great Deluge detail what happened and include a great deal of minutiae. Both laymen and those responsible for designing and building facilities to protect New Orleans and other low places along the Gulf Coast will find the account worthwhile.

One of the strong points of the book is its extensive detail concerning the hour-by-hour activities of Michael D. Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco; New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin; and President George W. Bush. Unfortunately, the technical aspects of what happened are inexorably mixed up with many political and bureaucratic mistakes.

However, the most interesting reading, and one of the primary reasons to get the book, is contained near its end (pages 625 to 637) in a time line. These 13 pages—portions of which are summarized below—make terrifying reading.

Saturday, August 27

  • 5:00 a.m.—Hurricane Katrina is 435 miles southeast of the Mississippi delta … winds blowing steadily at 115 mph.
  • Noon—The Louisiana National Guard calls 400 troops into service. (3,000 of them are not available because they are in Iraq.) 
  • 4:00 p.m.—Contra-flow plan is activated. Traffic can move outward from the city on nearly all traffic lanes.
  • 5:00 p.m.—New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declares a state of emergency in the city.

Sunday, August 28

  • 6:15 a.m.—Katrina is a Category 5 hurricane.
  • 9:30 a.m.—Mayor Nagin orders mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.
  • 10:30 p.m.—The last of the people seeking refuge in the Superdome are allowed in.

Monday, August 29

  • 3:00 a.m.—The 17th Street Canal begins to suffer a breach.
  • 5:00 a.m.—A civilian calls the Corps of Engineers to report the 17th Street Canal is breached.
  • 8:14 a.m.—The Industrial Canal is breached, flooding the Ninth Ward.
  • 8:30 a.m.—Katrina creates a 25-foot storm surge.
  • 1:00 p.m.—Looting begins in New Orleans.
  • 4:00 p.m.—The London Avenue Canal levees are breached in two places.
  • 11:00 p.m.—The White House receives a report of the extensive flooding in New Orleans.

Tuesday, August 30

  • 7:00 a.m.—President Bush, in San Diego, is told of the severity of the crisis. Later he maintains that he was informed that New Orleans has "dodged the bullet." Wednesday, August 31
  • No time given—Waters have stopped rising in New Orleans.
  • 8:00 a.m.—Two hospitals lose their generators.
  • 9:00 a.m.—Governor Blanco requests 40,000 federal troops.

The time line ends with the following:

Saturday, September 3

  • 5:47 p.m.—The Superdome is empty.
  • 9:50 p.m.—The convention center is empty.

In summary, perhaps this is less a book review than a strong recommendation that all civil engineers read The Great Deluge. It is a useful reference volume, as well as an historical record.

Additionally, it probably is easier to read than the reports our technical and professional committees undoubtedly will write. Let’s hope that engineers, as well as politicians, will learn from the errors made before and during Katrina’s deadly rampage.

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201-441-9719; or e-mail him at pagan@cenews.com.


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