Mike O’Hare writes:
The Presidential claim about the catastrophe being unpredictable — “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees” — is, perhaps deliberately, confusing. The facts are simple and well known:
(1) The NHC forecast on Saturday night was as in Figure 2 (below) and had the following forecast language:
…KATRINA STRENGTHENS TO CATEGORY FOUR WITH 145 MPH WINDS…
A HURRICANE WARNING IS IN EFFECT FOR THE NORTH CENTRAL GULF COAST FROM MORGAN CITY LOUISIANA EASTWARD TO THE ALABAMA/FLORIDA BORDER…INCLUDING THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS AND LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN.
A HURRICANE WARNING MEANS THAT HURRICANE CONDITIONS ARE EXPECTED WITHIN THE WARNING AREA WITHIN THE NEXT 24 HOURS.
PREPARATIONS TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY SHOULD BE RUSHED TO COMPLETION.
and this in the advisory at 4AM:
THE INTENSITY FORECAST ANTICIPATES THAT KATRINA COULD APPROACH CATEGORY FIVE STATUS PRIOR TO LANDFALL.
On Friday night, the graphic was:
(2) The two key facts — that a hurricane of 4 or 5 intensity would overtop or breach levees surrounding the city, and that once flooded, New Orleans would be under water and without power, water, or other services for weeks or months — have been known to a certainty for years. Every study of this issue for at least two decades has drawn this conclusion, and there are no engineering or official studies known to me — none — arguing that the flooding we have observed would not occur, or that it was so unlikely that disaster planning should ignore it.
It has also been well known that nearly all stocks of food and drink are at street level (in stores and private kitchens) in any city; in New Orleans this means a fathom or two below the waterline of the expected flood.
(3) The current hurricane season was forecast to be extreme and the last three months of it have confirmed that forecast.
(4) Hurricanes regularly strike the northern Gulf Coast.
In sum: federal, state, and local authorities knew for years that this would happen, for months that it was especially likely this summer, for two days that a particular hurricane had New Orleans in its crosshairs with nothing but warm water to feed on en route (figure 1) and for a day that the hurricane was enormous, growing, and still on target:
That any kind of serious relief should only be arriving a week after figure 1 was issued, and four days after events confirmed all the predictions, is an historic conjunction of incompetence, unconcern, malfeasance, ignorance, and/or stupidity. Period.
In response to a a query, Mike adds:
If the levee is topped, you have a flow a foot deep and a mile wide. If it’s breached, you have a flow six to fifteen feet deep by a hundred yards wide, widening some as the flow tears out more material. The pressure differential driving the flow in a breach is greater, so you get more flow per square foot of cross-section, but a levee overtop would have put more water in the city faster.
What happened showed incompetent preparation for what was predicted, even though it was somewhat less devastating. It is true that if one had any working pumps, one could pump out after an overtop, while one can’t as long as a breach is open. But since the pumps and the power stations that would be needed to drive them are all under water, that’s of no practical significance right now.
Mike points to this column by Dan Froomkin:
I noted in yesterday’s column that Bush, in his early-morning interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, made a startlingly inaccurate assertion: “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
Several editorials jumped on Bush’s statement as a sign of Bush’s floundering (see below), but the news columns of major newspapers were oddly silent.
One exception was a New York Times story by Scott Shane and Eric Lipton which used the quote to bolster the theory that “a crucial shortcoming” of the government response “may have been the failure to predict that the levees keeping Lake Pontchartrain out of the city would be breached, not just overflow.”
But that’s a technical distinction, and a fairly minor difference.
Mark Schleifstein, the environment writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, e-mailed me this morning: “For days in advance of this storm, everyone from the mayor of New Orleans to the governor to [National Hurricane Center Director] Max Mayfield gave a clear message: a Category 4 hurricane will overtop the levees. . . .
“Our series and the latest NWS software used by emergency planners throughout New Orleans indicate that even some Category 2 storms could put water over the levees in eastern New Orleans.”
I’m also told by another source that the two levees that failed were first overtopped — then they eroded from the interior and collapsed. Once water starts spilling over the top of a levee its structural integrity can no longer be guaranteed, apparently — and the Corps of Engineers was aware of that possibility.
Tim Rutten writes in the Los Angeles Times that “the tragedy that this week destroyed a vibrant metropolitan area that was home to 1.4 million people and the city proper that was a national cultural treasure was not simply imagined but foreseen with a prescience that now seems eerily precise. . .
“Three years ago, New Orleans’ leading local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, National Public Radio’s signature nightly news program, ‘All Things Considered,’ and the New York Times each methodically and compellingly reported that the very existence of south Louisiana’s leading city was at risk and hundreds of thousands of lives imperiled by exactly the sequence of events that occurred this week. All three news organizations also made clear that the danger was growing because of a series of public policy decisions and failure to allocate government funds to alleviate the danger.
“The Times-Picayune, in fact, won numerous awards for John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein’s superbly conceived and executed five-part series — that’s right, five-part — whose initial installment began with a headline reading: ‘It’s only a matter of time before south Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.’ “