Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Storm; What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina - The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist, by Ivor Van Heerden and Mike Bryan


Okay that is an insanely long title. Mr. Heerden specializes in studying the effects of hurricanes: what happens after a hurricane hits like property damage, environment damage, casualties, health problems that develop later etc. As a cofounder of the LSU Hurricane Center and director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, I think his credentials are pretty solid by themselves. He also lived in Louisiana at the time that Katrina hit. He saw the damage first hand.

He and his colleagues had for years been producing computer models that demonstrated what would happen if a severe storm were to hit New Orleans prior to Katrina. His graduate work involved wetland restoration and habitat. The wetlands that used to be rejuvenated with floods from the Mississippi River have decreased over the last several decades, to the point that storm surges have a harder impact inland with each storm. The science was a little dizzying. So were the politics and corruption that seemed to stall every effort to make New Orleans safer.

Though he isn't an engineer, he and those he worked with who were engineers, discovered that the levees were not built on proper soils, were not built with deep enough steel pilings, and their placement in some places funneled water INTO the city. Dutch engineers, when they came to observe the post-Katrina levees, couldn't believe the poorly planned layout.

According to Heerden, it IS possible to rebuild New Orleans and in a way that sustains the fishing, oil, and shipping industries, protects the city from future hurricanes, and rebuild the wetlands and barrier islands that previously protected the area in centuries past. He's not optimistic given the political structure and traditions that are inherent in any government undertaking. It would take a lot of money and sacrifices from all entities concerned, but he seems convinced it would take less money that the sporadic "patching" that has been the typical procedure for dealing with levee problems.

It made me mad. Katrina's impact was largely preventable. It didn't have to happen that way. I'm willing to bet that the situation will not improve. I know that's pessimistic, but given the current political climate that defies common sense in the way the government is trying to spend it's way to prosperity and everyone is only interested in "what's in it for me", how can this nation possibly pull together and do things that will benefit the nation as a whole?

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