Lessons of Disaster

New Orleans We keep a constant hurricane watch at my house. Anyone who has ever had the eye of a hurricane pass over them, keeps their eye on every hurricane. Having just seen the impact of Harvey in Houston and Beaumont, I have been upset over some of the lessons forgotten since Katrina. I have daily texts from a friend and comrade in Puerto Rico about the continuing lack of power and water there from Hurricane Irma. We watch for news of friends and their evacuation from Miami and Tampa-St. Petersburg.

But, let’s focus on the positive for a minute. I wrote a book a couple of years after Katrina called ACORN, the Rebuilding of New Orleans and the Lessons of Disaster (2011, Social Policy Press), so let’s see what lessons have been learned, because some of this is better news.

  • After Katrina it took four days for federal authorities to even get approval for the military to help the stranded population. Reportedly there was virtually no delay in getting military into help after Harvey.
  • FEMA has spent $2 billion after Katrina to assist communities in making disaster plans and training local officials, and 80% now have confidence in their plans, compared to 40% in 2005.
  • Training of federal and local authorities is now aligned and collective.
  • FEMA now positions supplies at designated shelters before the storms hit, not afterwards when too often they are also blocked by flooded roads and impassable conditions.
  • After watching people in the Katrina footprint refuse evacuation because they couldn’t leave their pets to die, Congress passed a law requiring emergency mangers to make provisions for animals. In Houston existing kennels were evacuated and other kennels were set up in advance to be ready.
  • DHHS forced hospitals in the wake of so many tragedies in Katrina to have emergency plans and train their personnel to handle them. Reportedly some rough edges were still dragging, but talking to a friend whose mother was in a nursing facility in Houston, the response was much more effective.
  • FEMA now accepts volunteer help rather than resisting assistance from citizens even when overwhelmed allow the possibility of organizations like the Cajun Navy to move from Louisiana to Houston and Florida in order to be on the scene to help in evacuations and recovery.

It’s not perfect. There are still huge arguments over whether to shelter-in-place or evacuate. Houston’s mayor elected to not make evacuation mandatory. Florida’s governor gave an unparalleled order for over 6 million to evacuate. These are apples and oranges, but this debate will continue.

Fortunately, cell phones are now ubiquitous so it is easier to communicate with more people and issue emergency warnings.

All of this is progress, but we still have a long way to go.

We asked Amazon’s robot thing, Alexa, about Hurricane Irma. She didn’t understand. We asked about weather in Miami and then in Fort Meyers, and Alexa said there was rain and tornado warnings. Then we asked about storm surge, and Alexa was clueless. The moral of that story is simple. It still is going to take all of us on the ground to key an eye on hurricanes continually, because we have been there and done that.


Building Drainage Systems for a Changing Climate

New Orleans Pumping Station

New Orleans   On August 5th only weeks ago, New Orleans was caught in a downpour of between 9 and 10 inches in some parts of the city that overwhelmed the sewer and drainage system. The city has been in crisis since that time, as citizens come to grip with what they thought were the strengths of the system versus its real abilities and classic fail. The outgoing mayor’s reputation and legacy, on the rise for his handling of the Civil War monuments, has now drowned since the Sewerage & Water Board was on his watch and under this thumb. The level of contradiction and incompetence revealed in the aftermath of the flooding has left many in the city on edge during hurricane season with the anniversary of the August 29th Katrina hurricane in 2005 only days away.

Remarkably, what was once vaunted as one of the most effective drainage systems in the world, now is a poster child for urban myth. I’m especially sensitive to the mythology here, because I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker as well. After the May floods in the 1980s, I had sucked in a line that the city could handle 3 inches per hour. After the August floods, I had repeated the fiction, and had to retract my line, when the local papers kept reporting that, yes, the system was supposed to be world-class, but that meant it could handle 1 inch the first hour of rain, and clear ½ inch every hour after that. A 10 inch rainfall in their version of the events was a “sky falling” catastrophe that even the best systems could not handle without flooding, especially given the epic level of the rain.

Now with Hurricane Harvey knocking hard at the I-10 Louisiana Welcome Centers across the Sabine River, we read that the Mayor’s office and the local Sewerage & Water Board are having trouble verifying any technical assessment that would have rated the system’s water carrying and clearing capacity even at the level of 1 inch per hour and so forth. This has all of the alarming aspects of an urban myth repeated so often that no once bothered to check the sources until they were finding their life jackets and canoe paddles with the water rising at the front door.

Meanwhile I’m due in Houston this week. Harvey is expected to dump 3 feet of water on Texas. The Houston drainage system is legendary for its limited handling capacity and frequent flooding from homes to interstates on the least heavy rainfall. My friend and comrade sent me a dawn text that they had already had 21 inches hit the city by Sunday morning. He was happy to report the water had covered up his street, but was not up to the porch steps yet. Before you applaud the progress in Houston, the nation’s 4th largest city, you probably need to know my friends live in the Houston Heights, near the apex of the rise. Their story is a high ground story, not one from the lowlands.

But, it’s fair to say that no city, even Houston and New Orleans in the swampy tropics of America, can handle a foot or more of water without some flooding at this point. My question is what are we learning? With climate change we are going to have more of this more often, not less. Are we talking about infrastructure investment and capital programs that will give drainage systems the capacity to handle even a couple of inches of water per hour, much less what we are seeing now with some regularly.

In the classic formulation attributed in the French Revolution to King Louis XIV, “here comes the deluge….” We’re not ready, but can we become able?