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September 02, 2005

FEMA sophists

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.

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» Uncertainties, prudent planning, and duties. from Adventures in Ethics and Science
There's a post at Majikthise that sifts through the matter of what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did or did not know about about the likely effects of a hurricane on New Orleans. It's an interesting case of people in FEMA and the Army ... [Read More]

» This right here, is bullshit. from StealthBadger.net
Update: I really fucking hate sophists. These are true sophists, too; they believe winning the argument is worth more than people's lives. Update: I'm sorry, someone needs a slap, and here is at least a small one: Website banner size... [Read More]

» This right here, is bullshit. from StealthBadger.net
Update: I really fucking hate sophists. These are true sophists, too; they believe winning the argument is worth more than people's lives. Update: I'm sorry, someone needs a slap, and here is at least a small one: Website banner size... [Read More]

» This right here, is bullshit. from StealthBadger.net
Update: I really fucking hate sophists. These are true sophists, too; they believe winning the argument is worth more than people's lives. Update: I'm sorry, someone needs a slap, and here is at least a small one: Website banner size... [Read More]

Comments

Yeah, 6 of one, a half dozen of the other...

From Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing in the Post today on the distinction without a 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.

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.

I learned this in my one quarter of college level geology. Once an earthen dam becomes saturated with water, it will loose its cohesion and fail, in a manner similar to the way rains seem to cause mudslides in California every year. The general design of levees and dams is to make them impermeable from the river (or lake) side only; with the result being that once the dam overflows, saturation is largely just a matter of time.

All true. Everyone expected the levees to breach. There's documentation of this everywhere you look.

Moreover, what about an evacuation plan? We've been hearing since 9/11 that the most likely scenario for another terror attack was a ship-bomb exploding in a major port. If Homeland Security didn't have a plan for evacuating New Orleans, what do they have a plan for?

Republican crooks and their corporate sponsors have diverted every essential government resource into their own pockets. It started with Reagan, and the job is now nearly complete. They have ruined everything.

My worry as I watched Katrina come in was that enormous rainfall afterward might overflow the system from upriver. That didn't happen. Katrina had less upstream rainfall than many lesser hurricanes. The levee system was more degraded than I thought.

People are pointing their (middle) fingers at Bush on this, and with good reason. But a check of the Congressional Record will show that Clinton wasn't at all generous toward levee remedies. And Bush uno, and Reagan and.....

Phillip--

It's true, Bush could resort to the "nobody before me paid attention to it either" defense, but I've never thought that this defense absolved a leader of responsibility for his negligence. In any case, Bush is still on the hook for the lack of response that's cost so many lives.

The sad thing is that the state of Louisiana anticipated the need for an evacuation plan and on Randi Rhodes I heard they asked for $5 million to execute it days before Katrina and was denied by the federal government. There is exactly zero excuse for BushCo. At this point, the only honest answer from a White House would be, "Fuck the poor--we wanted them to drown to death."

All of this is going to put the lie to the "nobody could have predicted this" meme that Bush, Rice, and now Clinton himself have been introducing, with a noticable thud, to the public discourse. Here, we're looking at the equivalent of the famous August 6, 2001 memo -- only we're no longer talking about classified information, but risk analyses and warnings that were not properly heeded for decades.

Defenders of the Bush administration are likely to argue that the risks to New Orleans were no greater or lesser than the risks facing other cities around the nation; not every risk can be given equal time or funding. Fair enough. On the other hand, we're talking here about a city that has been a disaster priority for the past half century -- grain exports flow out from the Gulf, and oil flows out. For that reason, protecting New Orleans was a top cold war priority, if for no other reason than to guard against the (now likely) economic catastrophe that would result from the loss of that port.

Bush has been in office for nearly five years -- not eight months. He's on the hook for this one.

What makes it obvious that these people are arguing in bad faith is that they are making two contradictory arguments: they can't be blamed for inaction because a hurricane this big obviously meant the city was doomed, and, additionally, they can't be blamed for inaction because nobody could have expected that a hurricane could cause the city to flood. One of those argument might be true. Both can't be. Making both arguments simultaneously isn't just dishonest, but insulting.

I agree Matt. FEMA can't even coordinate its own excuses.

you know, what's really strange is they seemed to be so competent in another hurricane situation
http://www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2004-09-28/cover_story.html

"They're doing a good job," one former FEMA executive says of the Bush administration's response efforts. "And the reason why they're doing that job is because it's so close to the election, and they can't f--k it up, otherwise they lose Florida -- and if they lose Florida, they might lose the election."

but not in this one. It's almost like they cared more about Florida, under Jeb Bush, during an election then they care about any Democratic city, in a non-election, under anyone not named Bush.


There's another lie here that hasn't been covered much. FEMA seems to be claiming that one of the reasons they didn't get enough manpower in New Orleans soon enough was because after the storm itself passed, it looked like everything was relatively fine. They claim the real problems didn't start until the levees broke the next day. This is false. The levee in the Ninth Ward broke DURING the storm, flooding the houses there to the rooftops before the eye of Katrina even reached them. There may be some confusion as to what wards in New Orleans are. They are not neighborhoods. They are huge sections of the city. The Ninth Ward happens to be the poorest section of New Orleans, which is probably why it didn't get much attention that first day. The same levee broke during Hurricane Betsy, flooding the same section of the city. Unpredictable? Hell, it had already happened once in the past.

Apologies for the duplicate trackbacks. Toothache warring with outrange warring with Percocet and none really gaining the upper hand.

Have Creationists been running our government in more places than I realized? What lame excuses!

Seems to me that during hurricane season, they should keep ships on call all along the coast to rush to any port which is hit.

Wasn't the levy that failed a concrete floodwall on top of an earthen berm? And is there any mystery at all about what tends to happen to a pile of dirt at the bottom of a waterfall?

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