Saturday, August 1, 2015

Katrina + 10: Once and Future Disasters


Ten years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina—third most intense hurricane to make landfall in the U.S., based on central pressure—slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast, beginning the nation’s worst and most widespread disaster since the Great Easter 1913 flood. Ten harsh lessons from both 

“You need to pay attention to what is happening with Hurricane Katrina,” advised the late Air Force senior historian Craig B. Waff (1946–2012), who called me from Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, just a few days after Katrina began battering the Gulf
Flooded houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (left) and in Dayton during the Great Easter 1913 flood. Credit: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA and Dayton Metro Library
Coast on August 29, 2005. “Many aspects seem to be repeats of what you’ve been discovering about the 1913 flood.” 

“But the 1913 flood wasn’t a hurricane; it was a winter storm system,” I objected, at that time still rather narrowly focused after having then researched the Great Easter 1913 national calamity for just over two years and published just my first article on it.

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “The societal parallels are uncannily striking.” 

How prophetic he proved to be. 

1 – Both 2005 and 1913 were really, really bad. The protracted disaster that began with Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005 ultimately killed over 1,800 people and devastated more than 90,000 square miles in at least half a dozen states (Louisiana,
Rainfall during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (left) and during the Great Easter Flood of 1913 (right). Also shown are the devastating Easter 1913 tornadoes and multistate dust storm. Credit: NOAA and Trudy E. Bell
Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama)—about the area of Great Britain. The Federal government spent more than $110 billion in disaster relief, recovery, and rebuilding while private insurers and reinsurers covered nearly another
Costliest hurricanes. Credit: AccuWeather
$62 billion in insured catastrophe losses—the highest annual U.S. insured catastrophe loss ever. In comparison, the Great Easter 1913 disaster claimed some 1,000 lives, afflicted a similar area over parts of 15 states, costing the equivalent of at least $116 to $130 billion (in 2013 dollars) of documented damage. In both cases, we’ll never know precisely just how bad, as many flood losses were uninsured (and thus uncounted) and many people may have died months later and not been counted as part of the original figures.

2 – 2005 wasn’t just Katrina. “Don’t Call it Katrina” is the title of a May 29, 2015 New Yorker article by Thomas Beller. Katrina was just the first knockout punch of a series
Hurricane Rita: Credit: NOAA
of devastating hurricanes, followed three and a half weeks later by powerful Hurricane Rita, hitting land over Louisiana and Texas on September 24, but already fading into forgetfulness. Katrina and Rita marked the first time that two hurricanes of Category 5 strength on the Saffir-Simpson scale formed in the Gulf of Mexico in a single season. Really forgotten was the proverbial last straw: Hurricane Wilma—the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record—which nicked the tip of Florida on October 24, doing another $29 billion in damage, but concentrated most of its fury over the Yucatan. Not only did these hurricanes bring storm surges and torrential rain, but they were also accompanied by tornadoes—59 for Katrina and no fewer than 89 for Rita, putting both
Hurricane Wilma. Credit: AccuWeather
hurricanes in the top 10 for number of tornadoes. And of course, the Great Easter 1913 storm system consisted not only of phenomenal flooding in the Midwest—still holding scores of records across Ohio and Indiana; moreover, it was ushered in with a hurricane-force windstorm (would have ranked as Category 2) that crucially crippled communications, and was accompanied by more than a dozen tornadoes, including record-setters in Omaha (still Nebraska’s deadliest twister) and Terre Haute

3 – 2005 wasn’t just New Orleans. New Orleans was simply the largest city devastated by Katrina, and the one toward which the media converged, possibly because in all the devastation it was comparatively easy to reach, had the greatest concentration of storm survivors and public officials, and had at least some functioning facilities. New Orleans became the public face of Katrina. But that focus on just
Katrina and just New Orleans not only eclipsed the plight of millions of other Louisianans, but also unjustly obscured the tragedy of Mississippi as well as all the victims of Hurricane Rita, especially those in Texas. This, of course, echoed what happened in 1913, where Dayton became the focus of public attention as the result of its being the first major city to get word of the disaster unfolding in Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere out to the world despite decimated communications—reinforced by the fact that Ohio’s governor was also the publisher of the Dayton Daily News and that Dayton’s savior John H. Patterson was the president of NCR, the city’s largest employer. Even today, the flood is still remembered around Ohio as “the great Dayton flood,” as if the monumental floodwaters stopped at the city limits. Ultimately, identifying a natural disaster with one city has the unfortunate effect of diminishing public perception of both the scope and importance of a monumental, widespread calamity.

4 – 2005 wasn’t just a “natural” disaster. Beller in his New Yorker article “Don’t Call It Katrina” plus many other sources make the point that inadequately maintained levees and other infrastructure compounded the magnitude of the 2005 disaster in New Orleans and elsewhere. Human hubris also played a key role in the devastation
Luxury condos built on flood plain just a few feet above the
average level of the Rocky River. Another danger is the
eroding cliff undercutting the houses above the condos.
 Credit: Trudy E. Bell
wreaked by the 1913 flood, notably houses and businesses built encroachingly close to rivers and widespread deforestation that accelerated runoff. Those contributing causes were identified immediately after both disasters—and likely will be the subject of an entire future installment to this research blog. The chilling part is, humans don’t learn. They still think it is perfectly okay to build on flood plain—see photo at right that I took of the luxury condos built in 2012 in Rocky River, Ohio. Or they feel that because the last major flood happened in 1913, another such flood is unlikely to happen again, so they are justified in trying to avoid mandatory flood insurance—as several residents have tried to do in Troy, New York. They would be well advised to read government reports that predict more frequent intense greater rainfall and runoff in the coming decades for the Midwest and Northeast (see top two references in “Benchmarking ‘Extreme’”).

5 – 2005 wasn’t the worst that could have happened. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were “only” Category 3 hurricanes at landfall. They could have been Category 4 or 5. In 1913, the intense rain fell when the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers were at normal height; they could have been in flood. As monumental as both calamities were, they were not the worst theoretically possible.

6 – The disaster wasn’t over when the waters receded and the media left. In 1913, some newspapers went out of their way to pretend that cities were back to normal as soon as the floodwaters receded—even to the point of spinning the disaster
Paducah, KY, scoffed that the record
1913 flood was a disaster even though
floodwaters filled most city streets up
to 8 feet deep. Paducah News-
Democrat, April 16, 1913, p. 4.
as a “water carnival” equivalent to having the city’s “face washed” and that yielded nothing worse than some lost wallpaper (see “Spurning Disaster Aid”). In 2005, as recounted by Beller and in a 2012 Huffington Post Live half-hour roundtable discussion on how soon we forget, the reality of living with unsafe water, inadequate food, temporary housing, filthy streets, devastated infrastructure, improvised medical care, while trying to rebuild despite having little or no flood insurance payments—all the time still needing to earn a living and care for children—imposed huge medical stress on Louisianans and Mississippians (listen around minute 16:00). One
astute advisor cautioned New Orleans residents, “As bad as you feel now, you will feel worse in a year” when the adrenaline is gone and the media are gone, yet residents will still be struggling with finding gasoline and food. The long slog to recovery resulted in an undercurrent of rage at slow bureaucracies and clueless public. Observed one Huffington Post Live commentator, “the disaster lasts longer than the news cycle.” 

7 – Plenty of post-disaster blame was dished out. Blaming everyone in sight after a monumental natural disaster is apparently a recognized psychological response. The Federal government was excoriated for many failings in handling emergency response
after the hurricanes in 2005, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the failed levees. That included blaming the very victims of the disasters—even to the point of implying or stating in 2005 that New Orleans “got what it deserved” because of its culture of partying and sinfulness (see Beller’s article) or stating the same thing in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy because the New Jersey coast had the Atlantic City gambling casinos (see the Huffington Post Live video around minute 17:30).  One sobering caution regarding reports calling for revamping government responses: any new procedures won’t get tested until the next Big One—and may themselves fall short both because they are yet untried, and the next disaster will likely differ importantly from the past. 

8 – Big natural disasters are more likely in future. The trend is clear. Many reports predict that weather will grow more violent as the planet warms, increasing both the
Flooding after Katrina made
the cover of this 9/2014
global reinsurance forum on
disaster risk resilience.
number and the intensity of future hurricanes (like 2005) as well as the magnitude of riverine floods in the interior of the eastern half of the nation (like 1913). Costs of major natural disasters are climbing because of increased population, increased personal wealth, and increased infrastructure now in harm's way, as well as some people's magical thinking in continuing to believe that no big disaster could really befall them. Insurers and reinsurers are taking projected climate trends very seriously, and cities and utilities are devising plans for “climate resilience.” 

9 – Unless restructured, the funding of flood insurance is headed for a train wreck. This topic is way too big to address in this one 10th anniversary post, but is a major concern for both the U.S. Congress as well as for individual cities. The need is clear although all solutions appear unpalatable. But this elephant in the room is a clear case of “you can pay me now or pay me later.”

10 – We need to fight the natural human tendency of “post-storm amnesia” in the words of the Huffington Post video (around minute 24:00). Much of the forgetting of the scale, horror, and consequences of the 1913 calamity appears to have been quite deliberate—a topic I intend to explore in a future post to this research blog. Moreover, “motivated forgetting” after the trauma of natural disaster is a known psychological phenomenon. But such forgetting also impedes individual or societal learning from past experience and taking precautions for protection against a repetition. 

Historian Craig B. Waff in Air Force 2.
In short, historian Craig Waff  (R.I.P.) was absolutely spot-on in perceiving parallels between 1913 and 2005. The parallels demonstrate how quickly and thoroughly humans forget a phenomenal disaster through first dismantling its various aspects, and then mentally diminishing the magnitude and importance of those aspects until a monumental calamity can be and may be obliterated from memory…


©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Service Above Life

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.


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