The city of New Orleans is one of the most culturally diverse urban centers in North America. It was founded in southeastern Louisiana on the banks of the Mississippi River some 180 km away from the Gulf of Mexico. It was built in 1718 on the east bank of the river and south of Lake Pontchartrain. The city was named for Philippe II, Duc d’Orleans, the regent of France during the era of Louis XV. It soon became one of the most active commercial port centers of the country.
Its diverse culture later turned it into an international tourist destination (Hass, 2006). Unfortunately, New Orleans was built on a strip of land on the Mississippi Delta that experiences constant sinking of the land. This coupled with rising seas presents a great danger to the city. Floods and storm surges are the most feared natural disasters that could occur. To prevent this, Billions of dollars worth of levees, sea walls, pumping systems and satellite hurricane tracking have been set in place to allow for the protection of the residents of New Orleans.
However, it seems, the problem of New Orleans became even bigger with these remedies (McQuaid and Schleifstein, 2002). In 2002, New Orleans Times-Picayune released a five-part report on what could possibly happen if a major hurricane reached the city. As the world would see in 2005, all the speculations and predictions of this report became painfully true. The situation back then up to 2005 grew only worse. New Orleans was already 3 feet below sea level a century ago. This means the effect of storms is amplified against the city.
Furthermore, coastal erosion of barrier islands and destruction of the marshes present a big threat because hurricane winds and flooding could go inland undeterred. The city is surrounded by water and has areas that are below sea level. The levee system built to protect the city made the city a huge bowl ready to receive water that reaches past the levee but unable to drain it somewhere else. The levees also prevent the continued growth of the delta through silt build-up coming from up the river. Huge structures built on the strip of land contributed to the sinking of the land (McQuaid and Schleifstein, 2002).
Models way back in 2002 of the possible scenarios if a hurricane did hit the city were already grim at best. Most of the city would be underwater and the levee system that was built to protect New Orleans would be its own undoing. These pushed scientists to try to find ways to avert disaster. One proposed solution was to build a flood wall of up to 30 feet high bisecting New Orleans and Jefferson Parish to create a community haven on the river side of the wall where they could retreat and also protect buildings from invasion of floodwaters from the lake.
In 2002, government agencies and other leaders supposedly mobilized themselves to try and address the rising risk from hurricane strikes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency prepared new responses to the flooding of the New Orleans bowl. Some of the findings were that the levees be raised and lost marshes and barrier islands be rebuilt but the efforts would have been worth at least $14 billion (McQuaid and Schleifstein, 2002). In August of 2005, the feared category 5 hurricane finally came.
Hurricane Katrina began as a category 1 hurricane in August 25 when it passed southern Florida. It moved west on August 26 to straight to Louisiana. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico strengthened it turning it into a category 5 hurricane by early Sunday, August 28. The National Hurricane Center had predicted the second landfall for August 29. By then, around a million people had already been evacuated from the affected areas of southeast Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had already ordered mandatory evacuation of the city on August 28.
However, 100,000 of the 469,000 citizens of New Orleans did not leave either because they were too poor or were too sure that they would not be affected by the impending disaster (Drew, 2006). Katrina suddenly weakened to a category 3 storm just before making landfall and shifting a bit thus sparing New Orleans from the strongest winds. However, the disaster that had long been predicated came still came to pass. Tidal surges of six to eight m or 20 to 25 ft came in from the gulf and destroyed the 18-m or 11 mi long earthen levee system that protected St.
Bernard Parish. The tide also surged further inland into the Industrial Canal destroying the concrete floodwalls and making large breaches that flooded one of the poorest neighborhoods, Lower Ninth Ward, by up to four m or 12 ft of water. The strong winds also pushed water from Lake Pontchartrain back up the drainage canals north of the city. Although the city was spared from the worst doomsday scenario predicted, damage that had long been predicated came to pass (Drew, 2006). As New Orleans found out later, the worst was yet to come.
After the storm, only eastern sections of the city were flooded and the most obvious damage was to the glass panels of high rise buildings and rips on the skin of the roof of the Louisiana Superdome which also was used as the main evacuation center of the city. After the storm, floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain poured through huge breaches in the walls of the 17th street and London Avenue drainage canals which were supposed to carry out rainwater from the city. These drainage canals, instead, brought more of the water into the dry center of the city (Drew, 2006).
The wealthy and middle-class neighborhoods in the northern side of the city were flooded with the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by nightfall of August 29. Emergency communications that were supposed to be used for rescue and relief operations came down and looting became widespread across the city. The Superdome, that lost power during the storm, was surrounded by flood waters, trapping 25,000 evacuees in a dank sweatbox reaching temperatures of up to 100oF or 38oC by morning of August 30.
Although the flood waters did not affect the historical French Quarter of the city, by evening of August 30, the city’s residential areas were inundated with 200,000 homes damaged 50,000 of which were severely damaged. The scenario developing was grim and terrible but much of it was predicted before the actual event. Corpses were trapped inside flooded homes but some floated out the water-filled streets. Thousands were stranded on the interstate, the only evacuation point for New Orleans residents, without food or water (Drew, 2006).
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the experience was that the decision-makers were apparently unable to handle the situation properly. As in all disasters, when city and state officials become outmatched and overwhelmed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must step in to address the problems. It was obvious that despite the early predictions given by scientists, the city did not have evacuation protocol for the 100,000 people who did not have cars and the preparation of the shelter that could hold the people for a day or two.
The buses that could have been used for the evacuation should have been staged at the Superdome but were trapped in flooded garages. The police force that was supposed to respond after the storm was trimmed to only 249 instead of 1,600 further delaying the rescue operations (Drew, 2006). The decision-making structure included the mayor of New Orleans, the governor of Louisiana and the head of FEMA and its ground commander. As was later seen, the structure was ineffective in delivering aid to the city and only resulted in bickering among the many officials.
This led to more damage to life and property and made the situation even worse. The governor took two days to commandeer buses around the state to evacuate the city. FEMA did not even begin calling in other buses until two days after the storm. One third of the Louisiana National Guard was apparently in Iraq and it was not until September 1 and 2 that help from the Guard troops from other states came. Though FEMA and the Guard provided food and water to trapped evacuees at the Superdome, the 20,000 people inside the New Orleans Convention Center were given very little aid (Drew, 2006).
He flooded areas of the city became infested with molds and water became murky from oily sludge and other chemicals. Months after the storm, only less than 100,000 people returned to New Orleans. Many did not leave the metropolitan areas of much safer cities where they decided to find new jobs and start new lives. All this made Hurricane Katrina the costliest natural disaster in American history and the third deadliest. The cost was estimated at around $125 billion and rebuilding of the levee systems to handle category 5 storms was estimated at $30 billion and would take up to five years (Drew, 2006).
More than the hurricane itself that was inevitable, the decision-making structure was extremely flawed. FEMA was unprepared to handle the situation and differences between the state and city officials aggravated the situation. This obviously had huge effects on the private sector especially in New Orleans were everyone found themselves as victims and evacuees. Damage to the city was unprecedented and extensive and resident population declined drastically. The private sector except tourism was inevitably affected by the disaster.
Some of the most important lessons include the fact that the levee system must be reexamined to become more effective in its function of preventing flooding inside the city. Decision-making must become more efficient and coordinated among city, state and federal officials to provide quick response to any disaster. It was a disaster made by both natural and man-made causes. It is imperative that the man-made part be solved before the next big hurricane hits the city. Bibliography
Drew, Christopher. “Hurricane Katrina Disaster. ” Microsoft® Encarta® 2007 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2006. Haas, Edward. “New Orleans. ” Microsoft® Encarta® 2007 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2006. Katrina Timeline (n. d. ) Retrieved 7 June 2007 from http://thinkprogress. org/katrina-timeline. McQuaid, J. and M. Schleifstein. (2002). Special Report: Washing Away. Retrieved 7 June 2007 from http://www. nola. com/hurricane/indexQS. ssf? /washingaway/index. html.
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