Hurricaneville is offering some analysis on the relief effort in the wake of the death and devastation from Hurricane Katrina. This storm, which was at one point a Category Five Hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale with 175 mph, and the fourth lowest pressure of all time with 902 mb, or 26.64 inches of Hg, may go down as both the deadlies and costliest natural disaster in United States History. As of the time of this analysis, Katrina had left some 347 people dead along the Gulf Coast and between $20 to $35 billion dollars in damage. This analysis will not only take a look at some of what went wrong with the relief effort, but also take a look back through history at other controversial storms, and what problems they left behind.
Over the past two weeks or so, people across the United States sat dumbfounded as the local, state, and federal governments in the most powerful nation in the world performed miserably, and failed thousands of people, who were left reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds perhaps even thousands died needlessly as a result of poor communication, coordination, and execution of planning. This wasn't a secret. New Orleans had been listed as the most vulnerable city in the entire United States to a hurricane.
The question is how come better planning and preparation wasn't done to prevent this from becoming devastating reality? Let's also not forget those on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, which appears to have sustained greater losses than they did in Hurricane Camille, one of three Category Five Hurricanes to make landfall in the United States, back in August, 1969. Hurricane Katrina could go down as the most costly and deadly natural disaster in this country's history. The sad thing about all of this is the fact that we could see a higher death toll with this storm than with the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which killed anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 people.
Back in 1900 though, it was understandable (although still incomprehensible) to have that high a death toll because forecasters didn't have the proper tools then to give residents proper warning. There were no satellites, radar, or even reconnaissance flights. The Weather Bureau was just beginning to put together a network of stations in the Caribbean to get more observations, and more advanced warning of the presence of these storms. On top of that, ship reports, which were another prime resource, were very scarce since the ships were trying to get out of the storm's way.
One thing though that was around in 1900, that is still around today, is government failing to warn the people it is supposed to protect because of bureaucracy. In the days leading up to the disaster in Galveston, the Weather Bureau, which had stations in Cuba including Havana, disregarded analysis given by Cuban forecasters on the track of the storm. According to the book, Issac's Storm by Erik Larson, the American forecasters of the Weather Bureau were aware how good the Cubans were at forecasting these storms, and were afraid they would make them look bad.
The book, Hurricane Watch, by Jack Williams and Dr. Bob Sheets, former director of the National Hurricane Center, also provides evidence that corroborates this story. The Cubans, which were students of perhaps the best forecaster of the late 1800s, Father Benito Vines, had become exceptionally good at their craft. Meanwhile, the Weather Bureau was struggling to forecast weather in general, which is depicted in R.A. Scotti's book, Sudden Sea. While some blame forecaster Isaac Cline of the Galveston office of the Weather Bureau for the disaster, the games played by the forecasters at the Weather Bureau and their Cuban counterparts in Havana didn't help things either.
Fast forward to 1935, and the Labor Day Hurricane, the most powerful storm ever to make landfall in the United States. It has been listed by the Weather Channel as the Storm of the Century. This storm too also created a tempest of controversy as a Congressional investigation looked into why so many people died. Not only was the Weather Bureau criticized for its forecast, but also state and federal government officials were criticized for not getting several hundred World War I Veterans out of the Florida Keys, where they had been building a highway to compliment the Overseas Railroad. As a result, some 408 people died from that storm.
By 1938, the Weather Bureau, particularly its Jacksonville office was under the gun. The two forecasters, Grady Norton and Gordon Dunn, who eventually became the first director of the National Hurricane Center, felt tremendous pressure as another storm came out of the Western Atlantic, and appeared to make a beeline for Florida in September of that year. For several days, they spent endless hours tracking the storm, getting reports, issuing advisories, and figuring out where it was going to go. Finally, the storm decided to turn away from the Florida coast, and appeared to head out to sea.
As the storm got near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina on that fateful day, September 21, 1938, jurisdiction was passed from Jacksonville to the central office in Washington D.C. At the time, a young forecaster just starting out named Charles Pierce analyzed the situation, and in a morning meeting stated that he felt the storm was going to slam right into New England. The Bermuda High had been positioned unusually high at the time, and a frontal system to the west combined to create an alleyway for the storm to track right up the Eastern Seaboard.
The older and more experienced forecasters at the D.C. office of the Weather Bureau would have nothing of it. They including the forecaster in charge, Charles Mitchell, who was considered the best of his craft at the time, felt the storm would do what all tropical systems that got this far north in the Western Atlantic would do, and that was to turn out to sea and die out over the cooler waters of the North Atlantic. Warnings were issued, but none of them indicated there was a hurricane. The young upstart Pierce would unfortunately be proved right, and some 682 people would lose their lives and an additional 1,734 people were left injured from Long Island to Massachussetts in what became known as the Long Island Express, or the Great Hurricane of 1938.
Outrage followed the devastation caused by the '38 hurricane, which led to harsh criticism of the Weather Bureau. An amateur weather watcher from Long Island named Ernest Clowes blasted the bureau for its lack of warnings. He was joined by Princeton physicist, John Q. Stewart and Charles Brooks, the head of the Blue Hill Observatory at the time, who were also critical of the poor job done by the bureau. More investigation and analysis was done, and that resulted in a major overhaul of the Weather Bureau as a navy commander named F.W. Reichelderfer became the new director, Carl Rossby became assistant director, and Pierce was promoted to analyst. Since that time, forecasting tools such as hurricane hunter aircraft, radar, satellite, and computer models have developed to make life easier for the forecasters although sometimes the information being produced by the new technology was somewhat misleading.
Case in point, when Hurricane Camille was rolling through the Gulf toward its devastating blow in Mississippi in August, 1969, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center including the likes of Bob Sheets, the late John Hope of the Weather Channel, and Dr. Neil Frank originally thought that Camille was not that powerful because of its small size in diameter. However, when Hurricane Hunter Aircraft flew into the storm, they found that they were terribly mistaken. Camille was not only a powerful hurricane, but a Category Five Hurricane, the highest you could go on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.
In 1992, another Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush, or Bush number 41 as he is called by his son, was hurt politically as a result of the poor response following Hurricane Andrew's crushing assault on South Florida in August, 1992. Andrew, which was later upgraded to a Category Five on its tenth anniversary in 2002, devastated Homestead, Florida, and ended up causing some $27 billion dollars in damage at the time. Relief in the form of food, water, ice, and other necessities prompted cries of "Where's the calvary?" from state officials in Florida. The sluggish response in the wake of Andrew put the final nail in the coffin for the senior Bush's re-election bid as he lost to Bill Clinton in November.
It all comes down to a simple question. Why do we learn history? The answer to that is so that we don't repeat the same mistakes. That is what makes this catastrophe even more tragic. Past lessons are right there. In 1965, New Orleans flooded when the last major hurricane to hit there, Hurricane Betsy, made its last stop after hitting Florida. A levee system was put in, and according to the Army Corps of Engineers, this system was built to withstand a Category Three Hurricane. Improvements needed to be made. However, recently, it was learned that funding for projects such as the levee system had been cut by the George W. Bush administration so that it would be able to manage costs for the war in Iraq.
The younger Bush also didn't learn from the experience his father had with Andrew in the sense that FEMA and Homeland Security, the newly formed department in the wake of 9/11, failed to pay dividends by providing excuses, poor command and control, communication, and adding more red tape for the victims of this terrible disaster that Katrina wrought. Just another example of bureaucracy hamstringing efforts in public safety and storm preparedness and post disaster relief. We can educate all we want about the power and fury these storms possess as well as the deadly and devastating consequences that they can bring. However, if we let these lessons go in one ear and out the other as if we are a bored and restless grammar school kid, more tragedies like the one that has unfolded along the Gulf Coast of the United States will continue to happen for years to come, and not just at a deadly price, but at a costly economic price to all of us throughout the country.