The Federal Emergency Management agency claims to have anticipated flooding in New Orleans, but not the breech of the city's levees. FEMA is trying to get itself off the hook by saying that they expected the levees to overflow if a Category 4 or 5 storm made a direct impact on the city. The Agency is saying it was expecting that if there was a direct hit, then the levees would overflow and flood the city. What actually happened was that Katrina produced a huge traveling surge of water that broke the levees the next day.
Ultimately, the breach/overflow distinction makes no difference to FEMA's culpability. FEMA always knew that the New Orleans area was at risk of massive flooding from hurricanes. As of Sunday, August 28, the Agency had every reason to that Katrina would flood New Orleans the next day. Needless to say, FEMA wasn't prepared for that scenario, either.
Today's New York Times describes FEMA's frantic excuses:
The response will be dissected for years. But on Thursday, disaster experts and frustrated officials said a crucial shortcoming may have been the failure to predict that the levees keeping Lake Pontchartrain out of the city would be breached, not just overflow.
They also said that evacuation measures were inadequate, leaving far too many city residents behind to suffer severe hardships and, in some cases, join marauding gangs. [NYT]
FEMA should have been planning for massive flooding in New Orleans back when everyone was predicting a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. Katrina turned out to be a Category 4 hurricane that hit 70 miles outside the city. New Orleans flooded because of the delayed storm surge:
"Katrina was a very large storm, high energy, high intensity coming across the gulf," said Elizabeth English, an associate professor at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center.
"When the wind speed began to go down the storm surge did not dissipate. ... There was essentially a lot more momentum in the water than there was in the wind," said English.
As Katrina moved over land Monday the water it brought surged into Lake Pontchartrain.
A day later, the straining levees could not hold back the additional water and they broke in three places -- along the Industrial Canal, the 17th Street Canal, and the London Street Canal -- allowing water to pour into the city.
What exactly is FEMA claiming not to have foreseen?
It's a matter of public record that New Orleans' levee system wasn't built to withstand any direct hit by a hurricane above Category 3:
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the Corps, dismissed suggestions that recent federal funding decreases or delayed contracts had any impact on levee performance in the face of Katrina's overwhelming force.
Instead he pointed to a danger that many public officials had warned about for years: The system was never designed to withstand a storm of Katrina's strength.
"It was fully recognized by officials that we had Category Three [hurricane] level of protection," Strock said. "As projections of Category Four and Five were made, [officials] began plans to evacuate the city. [Nat Geo News]
Interesting. Strock is saying that New Orleans was doomed from the beginning. His point is that the force of Katrina was so great that even a fully-funded levee system wouldn't have saved the city. He alleges that cutbacks on flood spending didn't make any difference because the system couldn't have held anyway. Strock's fatalism may be an attempt to preempt accusations of neglect by the Federal government--but his line isn't doing FEMA any favors. Hurricanes are a chronic risk in New Orleans. If some hurricanes are considered unstoppable by engineering, then the authorities must absolutely have a meticulous evacuation and relief plan in place. FEMA should have thought these contingencies through a long, long time ago.
So, why is Greg Breerwood of the Army Corps of Engineers is insisting that the New Orleans levee system could well have withstood a direct hit by a Category 5 hurricane?
[On August 25] Army Corps personnel, in charge of maintaining the levees in New Orleans, started to secure the locks, floodgates and other equipment, said Greg Breerwood, deputy district engineer for project management at the Army Corps of Engineers.
"We knew if it was going to be a Category 5, some levees and some flood walls would be overtopped," he said. "We never did think they would actually be breached." The uncertainty of the storm's course affected Pentagon planning. [NYT, linked above, September 2]
FEMA's overflow/breach defense only works if the Agency believed projections as optimistic as Breerwood's on August 28. Otherwise, the Agency should have mobilized earlier, not later. FEMA's failure to anticipate the levee breach might have been exculpatory if it had started a massive mobilization and erroneously backed off after the storm passed. However, that's not what FEMA claims to have done.
By August 28, most officials believed that New Orleans' levee system was doomed:
The city's distinct terrain makes it particularly vulnerable to the storm surges, heavy rains and high winds of a hurricane. With more than a million people in its suburbs and center, the city is surrounded on three sides by water, and lies below sea level in a bowl-shaped basin. Pumps would fail if the storm surge of up to 25 feet overwhelmed the city's levees.
"That's why we are taking this unprecedented move," Mayor Ray Nagin said at a news conference that was broadcast live. "The storm surge most likely will topple our levee system." [NYT permalink, August 28]
FEMA was probably expecting this level of flooding all along. If anything, it is more damning for the Agency to admit that it expected a direct hit.
As it turned out, FEMA had slightly longer to plan for a slightly less severe disaster, and even so the Agency couldn't get its act together. Breach/overflow sophistry won't do any good now.