New Orleans and George Marshall

It’s pretty hard to have a blog on climate issues and not comment on Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans and Mississippi. On the other hand, most comments to date emanating from climate circles seem very tasteless and suggest any comment from someone interested in climate will be pretty risky.

The focus will be on reconstruction. So let me detour through the reconstruction after World War II.

I think that one of the most remarkable accomplishments of the 20th century was winning the peace after World War II. This has always struck me as even more remarkable than winning the war. Unlike virtually every prior military victory in human history in which the victor exacted revenge on the defeated party, fueling hatred and revenge, the Allies, led by the Americans, set about re-building defeated Europe and Japan. The program in Europe was named the Marshall Plan, after General George Marshall. Two generations later, the centuries-old cycle of European wars has ended, seemingly for good.

The "invention" of a method of how to win a peace was essentially unprecedented and, in my opinion, George Marshall was one of the greatest men of the 20th century. (On a minor personal note, I have been criticized for presenting a speech sponsored by the George Marshall Institute; given my admiration and respect for George Marshall, I was flattered by the invitation and the opportunity for even a minor association with the institute bearing the name of such a great man.) While the program bore Marshall’s name, it needed broader support, which could only come from a populaiton generous in spirit.

I am unfamiliar with the detailed history of how the Marshall Plan came about. I am sure that there were many voices in the United States in 1945 who (rightly) blamed Germany and Japan for the devastation of World War II and resolutely opposed the Marshall Plan. Their positions were far more justified than that of today’s German Environment Minister, who blamed the devastation of New Orleans on American climate policy. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed after World War II and the backbiting of Marshall’s critics is long forgotten. Let’s hope that the same thing happens today.

I do not expect that Europe (or Canada) will play a major role in the reconstruction of New Orleans and coastal Mississippi. The U.S. will necessarily do this itself. But the first instinct of any civilized nation should be one of sympathy; and the second one should be to ask what they can do to help, if not in the American Gulf Coast, but elsewhere, perhaps picking up American undertakings in tsunami-affected areas and Africa so that the U.S. can more effectively attend to New Orleans and Mississippi.


  1. Jaime Arbona
    Posted Sep 1, 2005 at 6:55 PM | Permalink

    Some information on the beguinnings of the Marshall Plan can be found here:


  2. Doug Lavers
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 4:11 AM | Permalink

    The Australian government has offered $10 million and some experts.

    I find it almost unbelievable that after three days there are still people pleading for help in the flooded areas of New Orleans.

  3. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 5:11 AM | Permalink

    I watched the coverage on CNN last night and on Nancy Grace. It was pretty shocking. There’s lots to criticize.

  4. Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 5:55 AM | Permalink

    Just back from the bush – hell, what could we do? Thank God that the US, and its history, is able to solve this particular crisis. Europe, with its self indulgencent view of it’s own importance, is, impotent.

  5. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 6:05 AM | Permalink

    The lack of preparation was completely woeful. This wasn’t some freak tsunami that struck without warning. It’s been considered highly probable from some time now that New Orleans would be nearly or directly hit by a storgn Cat 4 or Cat 5 hurricane “in the near future” and suffer these catastrophic results. Other than having an evacuation route of sorts prior to the hurricane, it doesn’t seem like there was much of a plan in place – especially regarding the aftermath. I hear that Carnival Cruise lines is considering offering 22 ships to house New Orleans evacuees, each of which can hold 3,000 people. I don’t understand why such a plan wasn’t in place before the event.

    Obviously a Cat 4 hurricane is going to cause destruction, especially in an absurdly precariously situated and (sub)elevated city like New Orleans. But it almost seems like city officials are inexplicably surprised at the hurricane aftermath and/or just expected someone else to come-in and take care of everything. They way I saw it, “best case” from such a hurricane (which assumes no levees broke) would be most of the city flooded and much of the without power or potable water for a week or two, and “worst case” would be a city that is basically uninhabitable (by US standards) for 4-6 months. I’m not quite sure what the folks down in Louisiana/New Orleans expected.

    I’ve always considered New Orleans to be an “engineering disaster waiting to happen.” I should hope these events will radically re-shape New Orleans rather than have the city just try to rebuild as-was.

  6. fFreddy
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 7:24 AM | Permalink

    It’s possible that I am bending over backwards to be charitable to the city fathers here, but I am not sure how fair this is.
    While it may have been “considered highly probable for some time now” that they would get walloped sooner or later, that sort of warning doesn’t tell you if it will be this year or next year. The only thing you can really do then is preventive measures – making theoretical plans, such as the evacuation routes, and building bigger levees. The latter is probably expensive, and from what I could see in the news pictures, would probably require knocking down the buildings that are adjacent to the existing levees. Both of these are unpopular; the latter probably more so for a local politician.
    In terms of reactive measures – dealing with the situation when it arises – surely the problem is that you don’t have much warning when the big one is finally coming. You get a lot of false alarms, and you don’t really know how bad it is going to be until it has practically happened. Dealing with a situation like today’s is a massive logistics exercise, with a huge cost. I’m sure noone begrudges that cost when the worst happens, but what about when the early stages are triggered a dozen times every storm season for what prove to be false alarms ?
    In the movies, five minutes after the natural disaster, the skies are black with helicopters flying disaster relief. I find it hard to believe the real world will be able to match that.
    I dunno, maybe I am being too charitable. Call it a reaction to the BBC.

  7. Peter Hearnden
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 10:05 AM | Permalink

    Re #4, surely is palpably obvious the opposite is the case? The crisis is clearly not yet being propely addressed, and what the fudge has it to do with Europe? I’m not aware they/we’ve been asked to give help? Besides the richest nation in the word probably doesn’t take to well to being offered help by Europeans? Would the French (the ‘brie eaters’) be welcome? (I’m asking btw, I don’t know).

    That said, it’s a real tragedy. It’s been pointed out it was something that was going to happen. You don’t build on deltas, stop the natural flow of sediment and then wonder why the delta continues to sink under it’s own weight. It’s now a no win situation 😦

  8. G M Hebbard
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 10:17 AM | Permalink

    Several years ago I found myself driving (by mistake – it’s illegal) along the top of one of the Mississippi levees south of New Orleans. I was impressed with it’s sturdiness and size. As fReddy says, such improvement and construction is politically impossible along the crowded canals in the city proper.

    Although the BBC graphic shows the river higher than the lake (makes sense — the river drains down hill to the Gulf – Lake level) I think politicians felt there was less to fear from the lake side. I love New Orleans and have already sent my donation to the Red Cross.

  9. MatÄ›j à…⟵ster
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 10:48 AM | Permalink

    Steve McIntyre:

    To get a more realistic view on the Marshall Plan, this is a good start:

    Tyler Cowan – The Marshall Plan: Myths and Realities, an essay on the Marshall Plan from Doug Bandow’s U.S. Aid to the Developing World, Heritage Foundation, 1985,

  10. Reid B
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 11:59 AM | Permalink

    Gulfport Mississippi was hit harder than New Orleans but hasn’t had the same “Mad Max” lawless aftermath that New Orleans has experienced. I believe planners over-estimated their ability to bring relief and order to a semi-submerged city. In Gulfport the water quickly receeded but New Orleans is a fetid sewer bowl.

    The “Mother of All Hurricane Horrors” in the US is almost never discussed and few know about it’s possibility. If Cat 5 hurricane hit New York harbor at high tide Manhattan subterrania would fill up like a bathtub. It would take months to drain and essentially destroy the entire infrastructure of Manhattan. Most residents would be in their apartments when electric, water, sewerage, elevators, etc. went out permanently. It would make what is going on right now in New Orleans seem minor in comparison.

  11. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 1:06 PM | Permalink

    Have there been Cat 5 hurricanes as far north as New York?

    In 1954, Hurricane Hazel hit Toronto. The languid Don and Humber Rivers, which occupy a fraction of much larger valleys, turned into torrents. It seems inconceivable that people in Toronto could die from floods, but they did; houses built in the broad river bed were swept away. Hurricane Hazel has had an impact on city planning to this day. I wonder what category it was.

    I haven’t thought about this for years. I was 6 at the time but I can still remember the anticipation. I wasn’t in Toronto, but in Boston, where my father was interning.
    I was in Grade 3 at Sprague School in Wellesley. The hurricane was supposed to hit Boston but veered off at the last moment, mostly missing Boston and going to hit Toronto dead on. Even though it missed Boston, I can still remember the wind on the way home through a little woods between our house and the school.

    There were a couple of other hurricanes that hit Toronto in the late 1950s and 1960s. I think that there was a Hurricane Betsy. In Toronto’s case, I think that we are better prepared now (through zoning) than we were in 1954, but I also don’t think that there’s been anything within an order of magnitude of Hurricane Hazel in 50 years.

    I’ve read a lot of John D MacDonald books over the years, mostly in languid summers at Muskoka. It seems to me that one of the sub-themes in his books was crooked developers in Florida getting zoning variances from corrupt municipal councils so they could build in hurricane-dangerous areas. Travis McGee was regularly running afoul of such plots. As I recall, Meyer was regularly predicting devastation from the big one. I presume that there must have been some context for this theme.

  12. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 1:38 PM | Permalink

    Long Island was hit by a Cat 3 in 1938, which I believe Chris Landsea suggested would be the 6th costliest US disaster were it to happen today. Gloria in ’85 hit Long Island, and there are a few others.

    NYC is usually spared because of the northeast track of of hurricanes in that part of the country usually steers them clear. I know that skyscrapers up there are built to withstand “hurricane-force winds,” but I’m not sure what category.

    Here’s an interesting two-page article written sometime after 9/11 (it refers to the Twin Towers falling). Many of the predictions here came true

  13. J. Sperry
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 3:09 PM | Permalink

    To add to the info above on hurricanes making landfall in New York (nothing above Category 3):
    1938 – Cat. 3
    1944 – Cat. 3
    1954 – Cat. 3 (Carol)
    1960 – Cat. 3 (Donna)
    1976 – Cat. 1 (Belle)
    1985 – Cat. 3 (Gloria)

  14. Reid B
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 3:11 PM | Permalink

    At Cat 5 storm hitting New York City is a possibility. Another factor that hasn’t received much media attention is the hurricane hit just east of New Orleans at high tide which amplified the storm surge. I haven’t seen any science on this point but I would postulate that a Cat 4 hurricane hitting at high tide could do as much or more damage than a Cat 5 hurricane hitting at low tide since the storm surge causes more damage than the high winds.

    Katrina is actually very relevant to the global warming debate. IMHO, the lesson of the devastation is that we should not spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the Kyoto treaty or a variant of it. We should be spending that money protecting our infrastructure from all sorts of disasters. Both natural disasters and man-made disasters such as WMD and infrastructure terror attacks.

  15. John G. Bell
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 3:34 PM | Permalink

    The lack of communication and control in the New Orleans police is a critical factor. The leadership of the local police force is supposed to direct National Guard troops when they arrive. They needed a robust communication system. In particular their efforts to save civilians left them isolated and continuous employment exhausted. This lead to demoralization much like was seen in the failed defense of Bataan 1942. Perhaps keeping the police working in larger sized groups would have helped. They were badly lead. Likewise Bataan was a poor effort by MacArthur. Having said this, I don’t think the local civilian leadership would have taken advantage of any time a more effective use of the police would have bought. So things snowballed out of control.

  16. John G. Bell
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 4:15 PM | Permalink

    Sorry for #15s lack of climate change content. How is this?

    We could have spent $5M upgrading the communication system of New Orleans or have cooled the planet 0.0000005 Deg. C more by 2050.

  17. Bruce
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 5:33 PM | Permalink

    Only opportunists (e.g. RFKjr) try to score AGW points here. The ugly reality is a Big Oops in the Big Easy well after a brush with the storm rather than the direct hit. The amazing parts are how ill prepared NO was for a levee break, for a total outage on everything, and the too rapid “Mad Max” situation. The Gulf & Caribbean have a long and nasty history, centuries, of hurricanes wiping out towns and cities every 10-20 years. Of course, planning, engineering and money make a big difference.

    I went to high school in southern La. over 30 years ago. Then a hurricane at NO was a huge ongoing worry, even the rest of us worried about NO because in some cases the rising water would be diverted onto us to save NO. Seems unbelievable how unprepared everybody remained – individual, state, local, federal. I suspect that local economic and culture issues (ahem) seriously affected planning and execution for local, state, federal agencies. If the “South is different”, southern Louisiana was another world. It seems the maximum federal response was slow because NO was actually spared the direct hit.

    The unique politics, physical aspect and culture of NO & Louisiana demand careful consideration if land use planning, design, construction codes, maintenance and responsibility are to be useful factors this time. I especially would like to see a forensic analysis on the levees that failed (any real surprises or just ticking bombs with a 100 yr fuse and numerous contributors) that have added $75b to the tab. La. has been a basket case a long time, it also desperately needs a culture of responsibility.

    The rest of us should ponder the lessons of how we should prepare ourselves and react when everything fails. Places where I have lived in half a century have been blessed by hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes and revolution. (well it’s been interesting) My grandfather was 5 in 1900 Galveston and they literally had to float on flotsam from the 2nd story roof. Believe it, history happens to the individual. Its lessons can be extremely harsh. And small differences are often critical.

  18. TCO
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 5:40 PM | Permalink

    The current response by the mayor shows total lack of responsability. Rather than taking the streets back and helping people start doing right things, he is complaining about not enough help like a welfare crybaby. And he says the looting is not as bad as everyone thinks…when all the blogging info we get says it is worse. What a loser. Typical inner city dynamic…

  19. George Taylor
    Posted Sep 2, 2005 at 10:50 PM | Permalink

    I’ve heard a lot of people (in the media) say things like “they should have known that the hurricane was coming — it was forecast in advance, so they should have prepared better.” Roy Spencer made a very interesting point in a piece on TechCentralStation:

    “Everyone knows that weather forecasts are not totally accurate. For potentially destructive and life-threatening events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, forecasters necessarily err on the side of caution. This leads to over-warning, which in turn results in some level of complacency on the part of the public. While over-warning leads to a high “probability of detection” (very few events go without warnings), it is at the expense of increased false alarms. Thus, we are left with the unavoidable situation where some portion of the people will not heed warnings – for example, I personally ignore most tornado warnings — and so people will die.”

  20. John A
    Posted Sep 3, 2005 at 12:36 AM | Permalink

    Can I be the only person to point out that the idiotic pronouncement of the German Environment Minister (soon to be sacked by the electorate) is not the view of the vast majority of Europeans or even the vast majority of Germans?

    Why is there such a temptation to smear an entire continent with the insensitivity of one person?

  21. Posted Sep 3, 2005 at 2:41 AM | Permalink

    Totally out of context but those who ignore what miners do, as opposed to think, deserve the lawyers from hell.

  22. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Sep 3, 2005 at 7:11 AM | Permalink

    #20 The German Environment Minister and Europeans: the initial theme of this post is probably obsolete by now, as most Europeans are dissociating themselves from the views of the German Environment Minister, but his views were got a lot of play here in the early going.

    The news angle has changed over the few days as the enormity of the catastrophe became clear. Some of the earliest coverage was extremely misleading. The earliest CNN report from New Orleans after Katrina had passed was from the French Quarter, where everything was in pretty good shape. Their impression was that Katrina had turned at the last minute. I guess that the French Quarter was on higher ground or that it took a while for the levee breaks to impact, but for whatever reason, the CNN reporters in the French Quarter on day 1 had no idea of the eventual catastrophe.

    Right now, my sense is that Americans are not too worried about what the German Environment Minister thinks, but first about the relief effort itself (about which there is a lot of criticism and there will be a lot more to come). Second, since this is a 9/11 scale event, I’m sure there will have to be a 9/11 level investigation to see whether there were things that should have been done to have better prepared for this. It looks like there will be plenty of blame to go around as it seems like the vulnerability of New Orleans has been well known for a long time. Black leaders are increasingly contrasting the dilatory federal response in New Orleans with the prompt 9/11 response.

    So the German Environment Minister is down the list of issues, but he didn’t make any friends for Europe in North America.

  23. Max
    Posted Sep 3, 2005 at 10:21 AM | Permalink

    I want to apologize for the German Environmental Minister (who is a typical Anti-American in German) and I didn’t vote for him.

    I don’t think that something like the Marshall plan will help and as a German I would advise against it. The product of the Marshall plan and its money incentive have brought a culture of unnecessary subsidies about Germany, which bother us even today.
    It is better to let the economy thrive on its own than meddling in it. Until now government hasn’t helped much, so perhaps a new approach would be better.

  24. Brooks Hurd
    Posted Sep 3, 2005 at 11:15 AM | Permalink

    There is more than enough blame to be spread around in the aftermath of Katrina. The most important action for the future is to learn from the mistakes of the past.

    The National Hurricane Center gave New Orleans 4-5 days of warning. The mayor of New Orleans did issue an evacuation order, but then he did not provide the means to evacuate the people who did not have the ability to leave the city. As I watch the news reports coming out of New Orleans, I have several basic questions concerning resources.

    Where were all the city busses on the Friday and Saturday before Katrina hit New Orleans? These could have been used to evacuate people.
    Where were the disaster plans for the police and fire department?
    Where were the back-up communications systems?
    Where were the back-up pumps to get the water out of the city?
    Where were the boats to rescue people during a flood?
    Sadly based on the responses by the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana there do not appear to have been any plans to prepare for this sort of a disaster.

    One lesson to learn from this disaster is that emergency plans for cities and states are a necessity.

  25. John A
    Posted Sep 3, 2005 at 5:20 PM | Permalink

    Re: #25:

    It’s refreshing to know that German sentiment is not in tune with its Ministers.

  26. George Taylor
    Posted Sep 3, 2005 at 7:30 PM | Permalink

    I found an amazingly prescient article in a year-old National Geographic that describes a “hypothetical” case that sounds spookily like Katrina:

  27. Cris Streetzel
    Posted Sep 3, 2005 at 8:56 PM | Permalink

    Re: #24
    3 Days before hitting New Orleans, Katrina was only a category 2 and predicted to curve up and hit Pensacola. 2 Days before it was category 3 and precited to hit New Orleans. It was only the day before landfall that Katrina strengthened to category 4-5. Living in Florida, I follow the NHC reports very closely. These things are very unpredictable and at 4-5 days out, there’s an 80% chance the forecast will be completely wrong – as it was in this case.

    My impression is that the buses were not used in the evacuation. It was never mentioned in the lead-up to the storm and I heard several reports about a citizen in the city who hot-wired a school bus after the storm and drove a bunch of people out. He had more sense than the city’s emergency planners.

    I also doubt that any sort of pumping system would have helped with open breaches in the levee. It’s simply too much water. On the matter of boats, the military did airlift a bunch of swift-boats in, but the closest working airport at the time was quite a distance away. Most people don’t appreciate the logistical challenges of moving all the material in such a short period of time into a completely shattered infrastucture.

    For those who wonder why the regular military isn’t more involved on the ground, it is illegal for them to act as law enforcement and so wouldn’t be able to restore order. The National Guard is the only military force that can do that. That’s why we see the regular units mostly doing air rescue and support work.

    That being said, someone certainly screwed up. I read reports that several states had their Guard units mobilized, but didn’t get authorization to move them in until Thursday. I’m not sure why this occurred. Bush did not federalize the Guard units for this emergency – it’s customary to only do that in national security situations like 9/11 – so I don’t think the Pentagon was calling the shots. I’m thinking they could not move into Louisiana without the permission of the state governor. That’s the only reason for the holdup I can think of….

  28. John G. Bell
    Posted Sep 3, 2005 at 11:21 PM | Permalink

    Two days before Katlina hit the coast, Bush called up the mayor of New Orleans and asked him for a manditory evacuation of the city. Thus spoke Gov. Kathleen Blanco who should know. Mayor Nagin delayed till t-36 hours, 12 hours. That evacuation plan called for the use of busses to move the poor and stranded out of New Orleans before the storm trapped them. Days later when the levees broke, they still hadn’t rolled. They had been parked in a low area and were swamped! It is said that they could have moved 10,000 people out a trip with the busses they had available.

  29. Brooks Hurd
    Posted Sep 4, 2005 at 11:03 AM | Permalink

    Re: 28

    I was wrong in thinking that the problems in New Orleans resulted from a lack of planning. I now know that the plans existed at both the city and state levels.

    It is my opinion now that we have witnessed over the past week an example of the “Peter Principle” at many levels in the city and state governments.

    I was not clear in what I said as far as the pumps. My comment on back-up pumping was not to try to remove water during a levee breach. What I meant was that since the existing pumps are electric, they can not be used until after the water level is lowered and at least partial power is restored. Consequently, New Orleans needs back-up pumps to lower the water levels after the levees are repaired. These are available. I have rented large diesel powered pumps for an environmental project in the state of Georgia.

  30. John G. Bell
    Posted Sep 4, 2005 at 3:05 PM | Permalink

    I understand that Gov. Blanco blocked federalization of the National Guard until some time on Wednesday. It was under state control up to that point. On Thursday, and under federal contol, the Guard started to become effective. A great number of people had been pulled out of the water and saved by then. That was the right thing to do and to the extent that diversion of resources left others hungry and fearful it was a still a good trade. This situation is so hellishly complicated that we may not recognize the sucesses we achieve for what they are. It would however require a true idiot not to see the effort.

  31. Paul
    Posted Sep 4, 2005 at 6:31 PM | Permalink

    RE #24,28, 31.

    I’m trying to find the links, but I remember seeing quite a bit about the state going through drills about a year ago using the same scenario that happened with Katrina. These drills were supposed to train people AND ferret out the problems with existing plans and correct them.

    It appears that when disaster struck, few at the top (and these would be local and state officials–they’re the front line) were willing/able to implement the plans already in place.

    To put the blame on the federal government at this point is somewhat disingenuous. This smacks of politics… rather than try and deal with situation and help people, local and state officials seem to have spent a considerable amount of energy blaming other for the problems.

    This gets to the heart of the problem that exists in any issues relating to climate. They instantly become political. The real issues are not dealt with, but rather most everything is handled in a way to hurt the various political factions.

  32. John G. Bell
    Posted Sep 5, 2005 at 3:45 AM | Permalink

    Re #32
    Another thing that is blocking wider understanding has been the transformation of news media into entertainment media. Throw in politics and you have a witches brew of simpleminded bias drunk by a wide audience.

  33. fFreddy
    Posted Sep 5, 2005 at 5:00 AM | Permalink

    From what I saw of the storm’s track, it seemed as though the state next door (to the east) was going to get a beating as well, but I haven’t noticed any news reports from there. Is there more unpleasantness to come ?

  34. Cris Streetzel
    Posted Sep 5, 2005 at 6:58 AM | Permalink

    It’s also hard to direct disaster relief when

    1) Everyone thought New Orleans was not severely effected the first 24 hours. There were no delays in aid reaching Mississippi. I don’t think the levee should have breached considering that Katrina did not hit directly. Until the city filled with water, no one figured New Orleans would be in bad shape.

    2) Communications are non-existant. The gov’t doesn’t know where the people are or are gathering. Even now, they don’t really know what’s being done by the relief teams. They have no radio comms with the outside world. According to the chopper pilots, once they go into the disaster zone, they’re on their own and just fly around looking for a place to drop supplies and rescue people.

    It looks like the governor is in the clear on the Guard delays. According to this article, she had the troop request through quickly and the delay was somewhere in Washington in sending paperwork back. Someone is going to get sacked over this.

    I have heard news reports from Mississippi (from FOX). The death toll is in the hundreds, but everyone is getting supplies and evacuation promptly. I guess it’s easier to provide relief amid wind damaged areas than flooded areas. All it takes is a chain-saw to open a road there. Not so easy in New Orleans.

  35. John G. Bell
    Posted Sep 5, 2005 at 7:50 AM | Permalink

    It will take some time to tell spin from fact.

  36. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 6:00 AM | Permalink


    From what I saw of the storm’s track, it seemed as though the state next door (to the east) was going to get a beating as well, but I haven’t noticed any news reports from there. Is there more unpleasantness to come ?

    Those states took a horrendous beating. However, for them, it was the more typical US hurricane scenario where people could return to see the devastation the next day and start the demolition/re-building process. They don’t have the flooding issues of New Orleans. New Orleans is also a major metropolitan area, and the largest cities hit to the east (Biloxi, MS; Mobile, AL; etc) aren’t nearly as large.


    I don’t think the levee should have breached considering that Katrina did not hit directly.

    Read the link I posted in #12. While it said that the levees should not fail (but could be overtopped by a Category 5), it does mention that a hurricane that passes just to the east of New Orleans is the worst-case, and that’s exactly what we had with Katrina (except that it was “only” a Category 4). This struck me as contradictory because we in the US worry about the northeast quadrant of the hurricanes, which has the worst winds and storm surge. But then the link makes sense of it: when the hurricane passes to the east of New Orleans, the winds of the hurricane hitting Lake Pontchartrain are blowing south. This pushes the lake against and/or over the levee protecting New Orleans from the lake. I have to wonder if this is a major reason the levee broke here. Maybe if the hurricane hits New Orleans directly, or passes to the west, then the lake levee holds, flooding is minimized, and New Orleans is dry by now.

  37. JerryB
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 6:23 AM | Permalink

    If New Orleans had been hit directly, or been in the northeast quadrant of Katrina, the storm surge from the south would have been considerably larger, and the flooding could well have been greater, and occurred sooner.

    As it happenned, the big storm surge hit parts of Mississippi, which, unlike parts of New Orleans, are above sea level.

  38. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 7:49 AM | Permalink


    A direct or northeast quadrant hit would’ve produced worse weather for New Orleans when the hurricane hit, higher rainfaill, etc, but I think the situtation would’ve been much better overall. Such storms would’ve pushed the lake storm surge away from the levees protecting New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain, and the lake levees would have been less likely to breach. It’s my understanding that the vast majority of flooding is due to the lake levee breaches themselves. So a “worse” hit from a storm that doesn’t breach the lake levees would have been better for New Orleans than a “lesser” hit that essentially attacked these levees directly and caused breaches.

  39. Cris Streetzel
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 8:16 AM | Permalink

    The odd thing is that the levee break did not occur during the storm. I’ve heard reports that it breached after the winds died down. Considering the water never topped the levee, then either 1) there was a flaw in the levee (that section was recently rebuilt and reinforced) or 2) a barge drifted into the levee. A 3rd possibility for which there is no evidence as yet is that there was sabotage.

    Well, I guess it’ll be a while before we know what really happened.

  40. JerryB
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 8:49 AM | Permalink

    The worse hit would not need to breach the levees; it would simply overflow them due to a much higher storm surge, plus higher waves.

  41. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 9:11 AM | Permalink

    It’s my understanding that the levee didn’t fail until Tuesday.

  42. JerryB
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 9:34 AM | Permalink

    Yes, the breach occurred, or became large enough to be noticed, on Tuesday.

    For a sense of storm events almost as they occurred, Brendan Loy’s blog archive at
    may be of interest. I followed it as he wrote it, and sensed his forboding as he wrote:
    “I’m not a meteorologist. I’m just an amateur weather enthusiast, a law-student blogger who happens to be a hurricane
    buff. But if I lived in New Orleans, I would definitely leave at this point. Tonight”
    on the night of Friday the 26th.

  43. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 10:54 AM | Permalink

    Maybe the levees didn’t fail until Tuesday (I thought it was Monday, but those days all seem to be rolling into one), but I imagine they were weakened severely on Monday. I don’t think they collapsed solely due to holding capacity (especially since they were designed to fill to above overtopping without failure).

    Re#39, maybe I wasn’t clear. The storm surge would act in a different direction if New Orleans were in the northeast quadrant of a hurricane or in the direct path. The winds would push the lake north/northwest in the former case and first west (before the eye) then east (after the eye passes) in the latter case. These could affect some of the Mississippi River levees, but would not really affect the Lake Pontchartrain ones. Look at a map of New Orleans and imagine the counter-clockwise winds of a hurricane, and you’ll see what I mean. So by “higher storm surge” and “higher waves,” I’m not clear which area of New Orleans you see these affecting. In fact, the way I see it, it seems that if New Orleans were in the northeast quadrant of a hurricane, most of the storm surge would be pushing away from the city, which seems like a good thing to me.

    And temporary overtopping of either levee system seems to me to be better in the long-term than the actual breaches that occurred. The breaches resulted in Lake Poncthartrain equalizing its water level with New Orleans. I can’t imagine any amount of levee overtopping that could equal that.

  44. JerryB
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 12:08 PM | Permalink

    My apologies for not being more specific.

    The storm surge to which I refer is not of the water in Lake Pontchartrain, but of the water in the Gulf of Mexico.

  45. Peter Hartley
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 12:12 PM | Permalink

    The following was e-mailed to me from a friend. Another interesting take on the relationship between environmentalism and the New Orleans disaster:

    Following Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Corp of Engineers set about devising a plan to protect the New Orleans area from big hurricanes and initiated the Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project.

    This project included big floodgates at Rigolets Pass and Chef Menteur Pass which would prevent storm surges from coming into Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf. The gates would be able to withstand surge from a Category 5 storm. (When the planning was going on, I don’t know if the term Category 5 was used. The Saffir-Simpson scale was not invented until 1969). Seems like a capital idea, since if the storm tide can’t get into Pontchartrain, you don’t have to worry about big levees on the Pontchartrain banks in New Orleans.

    Unfortunately, environmentalists got into the act in the form of Save Our Wetlands, Inc. They filed a suit in federal court and got a decision enjoining the Corps from building the gates.

    I am not sure why it is that environmentalists objected to gates which would be open except during storm-tide conditions. One fellow in the Corps (who was not involved) thinks it had to do with the sill design, the sill being the bottom, immovable part of the gate. He thinks the Corps was using a “high-sill” design (which reduces the cost of the gate) and the environmentalists thought crabs and other things that live on the bottom might not be able to figure out how to get over the gate. Apparently, these folks didn’t know that crabs can swim. (Reminds me of the people who objected to the Alyeska pipeline because it would block caribou migration routes – it is above ground, to avoid melting permafrost. Pipeline people got around the objections by building places for the caribou to walk over the line. Turns out these weren’t used. The caribou just jumped over it – and jumped back and forth over it because it was fun.)

    It is not exactly clear to me why the Corps didn’t mount an effort to redesign or do whatever was necessary to get around the environmentalist’s objections or to get the courts to tell Save Our Wetlands to take a hike, but I have a feeling they just got tired of battling the legal and bureaucratic bulls**. In any event, they eventually entered into some sort of consent decree, abandoned the floodgate project, going to the only fallback position available, strengthening levees along Pontchartrain, but only to a Category 3 height, since going would cause a host of other problems. (One of the other problems was rich folks living along Pontchartrain. Bigger levees would block their view of the lake. Another problem – building the levees higher means making them wider.)

    Last year, realizing that things were getting increasingly problematic, the Corps rejuvenated the idea and put together a proposal for a big feasibility study that would include the Rigolets and Chef Menteur floodgates, but I don’t think the study has gone anywhere yet because of cuts in funding.

    Record of 1977 court case follows:










    No. 75-3710



    No. 77-976



    ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that defendants herein, Early Rush, District
    Engineer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District; Clifford
    Alexander, Secretary of the Army; Douglas Costle, Administrator of the
    Environmental Protection Agency; and the Board of Levee Commissioners of the
    Orleans Levee District, be, and they are hereby, ENJOINED from any further
    construction of the Chef Menteur Pass, Rigolets, New Orleans East and
    Chalmette portions of the Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana and Vicinity
    Hurricane Protection Project until such time as this Court shall have been
    satisfied that such defendants have complied in full with Title 42, United
    States Code, Section 4332 with respect to preparation of an environmental
    impact statement for such project by means of a revision of the August, 1974
    Final Environmental Impact Statement in accord with Department of the Army
    Regulation 1105-2-507 Paragraph 7a.

    The Court reserves the right to modify the injunction ordered herein upon proper motion of any party.

    New Orleans, Louisiana, this 30th day of December, 1977.

    Charles Schwartz, Jr.,

  46. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 12:53 PM | Permalink

    The storm surge to which I refer is not of the water in Lake Pontchartrain, but of the water in the Gulf of Mexico.

    I don’t think the gulf storm surge is as much of an issue for New Orleans. There seems to be a lot of buffering to the south between New Orleans and the gulf. There are also multiple levees that would have to be breached for much of New Orleans to be flooded. There’s not as much of a buffer to the east, and a storm surge from that direction might overflow Lake Pontchartrain (which I still think is a better scenario to deal with than a levee burst). But most of that surge would be north of New Orleans and acting towards the west. The levee system (along the southern edge of the lake) might not be affected much at all.

  47. JerryB
    Posted Sep 6, 2005 at 2:07 PM | Permalink

    At the link:
    you will find a (too brief) discussion of paths the storm surge may take to NO depending on the storm tracks.

    Lake Pontchartrain is part of one of the paths, even though it is north of NO.

  48. JerryB
    Posted Sep 7, 2005 at 5:52 AM | Permalink

    for a (too brief) discussion of paths that storm surges from the Gulf may take to NO.

    Lake Pontchartrain is part of one set of such paths.

    I am guessing that you may be greatly underestimating the additional volumes of water that such storm surges could add to NO.

  49. Cris Streetzel
    Posted Sep 7, 2005 at 5:52 PM | Permalink

    Well, if the levee did not breach until Tuesday, that explains part of the delay in getting aid in. If the levee had not breach, there would not have been significant damage to New Orleans, or thousands of people who needed immediate rescue. Initial aid would have gone to Mississippi which was harder hit before that point. I don’t think the governor of Lousiana even declare a state of emergency until Tuesday, when the breach started. If we look at the timeline from when the levee breached, the delay is a day less than people think.

    As I recall, it took 4 days for significant aid to reach people after Andrew, which was a much more confined disaster. If you count from the time the levee was breached, significant aid started arriving within 48 hours. A significant improvement in the last 10 years.

  50. JerryB
    Posted Sep 7, 2005 at 7:19 PM | Permalink

    It seems that LA Governor Blanco declared a state of emergency on August 26, see
    for details.

    I may add some more details about timelines tomorrow.

    BTW, my almost duplicate previous post was due to a “Spam Karma” delay of the prior post.

  51. Brooks Hurd
    Posted Sep 7, 2005 at 11:21 PM | Permalink

    Re: #35

    I am not certain what you mean by: “It looks like the governor is in the clear on the Guard delays. According to this article, she had the troop request through quickly and the delay was somewhere in Washington in sending paperwork back. Someone is going to get sacked over this.”

    Each state governor is in charge of their own National Guard, unless the guard has been federalized. The Feds asked LA Gov. Blanco for permission to take charge of the LA National Guard to run the evacuation on Friday. Blanco delayed her decision and then rejected the request.

    This left the LA National Guard exclusively under Blanco’s control. She needed nothing from Washington to deploy them in any way that she saw fit. In my opinion, Gov. Blanco is anything BUT in the clear.

  52. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Sep 8, 2005 at 6:09 AM | Permalink


    JerryB, as I stated in post #12, I would’ve expected a direct hit or northeast quadrant hit to be worst-case. However, as the link in #12 claims, the worst-case is a hurricane approaching from due south, with the eye then passing east of New Orleans (which is not a direct hit and pretty much what Katrina was). As I said in #12, this is contradictory to what I expected, but when I thought about it, it made sense. I am assuming that some of the models FEMA models used in that link correspond to the FEMA models in your link, especially since Dr. Joe Suhayda of LSU is mentioned in both articles.

    Also, the “Storm Flooding of the East Bank (including downtown New Orleans)” section of your link refers to storms approaching from the south or southeast, not the southwest. “Storm Flooding of the West Bank” does deal with a storm approaching from the southwest, putting New Orleans in the normally dreaded northeast quadrant of a North American hurricane. However, I would argue that West Bank flooding is a much lesser concern than the East Bank. From what little time I have spent in New Orleans, I am under the impression that the West Bank has much less to do with New Orleans economy, lower population density, fewer people who couldn’t afford to evacuate themselves, far fewer historic and/ortourist areas, etc. So I don’t think massive flooding in the West Bank is nearly as disastrous as the East Bank.

    Hence, I think even your link supports the idea that a hurricane hitting just east of New Orleans is the worst-case.

  53. JerryB
    Posted Sep 8, 2005 at 10:21 AM | Permalink


    Let me mention just one of several indications that for the particular track that Katrina took, the amount of its move toward the east reduced the magnitude of the NO storm surge:

    A small excerpt from a large (900KB) file at

    LSU forecasters revise damage estimates

    Hurricane Katrina’s slight eastward tack has prompted Louisiana State University’s hurricane forecasters to recalibrate their damage estimates from wind and flooding as the storm continues its trek toward land.

    Computer models generated by a supercomputer at the LSU Hurricane Center from Sunday’s 10 p.m. advisory project a “worst-case scenario” of 329,000 buildings in southeast Louisiana sustaining at least some wind damage. That’s down from an earlier forecast of a half-million homes damaged, said Marc Levitan, director of the hurricane center.

    Storm-surge estimates outside the levee system have also been revised downward to 16-18 feet in eastern New Orleans. Earlier estimates were for 20 feet.

  54. JerryB
    Posted Sep 8, 2005 at 10:26 AM | Permalink

    Regarding timelines: while various retrospective timelines have been posted, for example:
    one might prefer “real time” timelines, such as the earlier mentioned
    (my favorite, but it seems to have exceeded its bandwidth allowance for today), and
    both of which are rather large files.

  55. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Sep 8, 2005 at 12:20 PM | Permalink

    A few key points:
    (1) moving further away would obviously reduce wind damage – no contest there (nor was there ever)
    (2) “slightly eastward tack” (track?) – I don’t know if their previous estimates were based on a direct hit, or if it was already projected to go slightly to the east and that the new estimate is an even further pass to the east. If it’s the former, then it somewhat contradicts the earlier link I posted. If it’s the latter, then it makes sense.
    (3) “Storm-surge estimates outside the levee system have also been revised downward to 16-18 feet in eastern New Orleans” – I think the key word there is “eastern.” The further east a hurricane passes, the more the winds shift southward (from westward), which would lessen the storm surge along the eastern levees. I think they may have been talking about the surge in Lake Borgne with that, not Pontchartrain.

    There’s not a lot of clarity there, IMHO.

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