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May 31, 2006

The storms of Katrina

katrina_box3.jpgWith hurricane season officially starting tomorrow, this NY Times article about the research that has been done over the past year into Hurricane Katrina provides some interesting information, including the stages of the storm on the New Orleans metro area:

The first stage of Hurricane Katrina touched Louisiana as it passed south of the city in the Plaquemines Parish town of Buras with winds of more than 125 miles per hour pushing a storm surge. The wind and water overwhelmed the local hurricane defenses: levees built to withstand 13 feet of water were overwhelmed by more than 17 feet of surge, damaging levees and scattering homes and boats across the thinly populated parish like toys.

As the hurricane moved across Lake Borgne to the east, the effect was quite different: the second storm sent strong waves and a surge estimated at 18 feet or more back across the lake to the levees bordering St. Bernard Parish. The long levees there had been designed to handle 13 feet of water. The assault washed over Chalmette and other communities with floodwaters exceeding 14 feet in some areas. A similar pounding took out the southeastern levee of the development known as New Orleans East.

In its third incarnation, the storm sent the water up a funnel formed at the northwest corner of Lake Borgne and into the city's Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, where the water rose and churned with exceptional force, said Hassan Mashriqui, a researcher with the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. Those waters shattered flood walls in several places and destroyed the city's Lower Ninth Ward.

As the storm pushed into Mississippi, it sent a final surge toward New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain, north of the city. As the water stacked up against the south shore of the lake, it rose against the walls of the three main drainage canals that run from the center of the city. Though the surge was weaker than the others and the water did not reach the tops of the flood walls, the 17th Street Canal and the London Avenue Canal suffered breaches that caused the lake's waters to spill into the center of the city.

The NY Times article coincides with my reading over this past weekend of Douglas Brinkley's new book on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, The Great Deluge : Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (William Morrow 2006). Brinkley's book provides mounds of information, but is not particularly well-written, as reviewer Wilfred M. McClay notes in this blistering review:

Let me confess that I haven't read all of the writings of Douglas Brinkley. I doubt that anyone -- perhaps not even Mr. Brinkley himself -- has ever done that. He is a veritable ... deluge of literary productivity, with books to his credit on a dizzying array of subjects, ranging from Beat poetry to Jimmy Carter, and from Henry Ford to, most recently, the failed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Indeed, the range of his literary productions is so wide as to seem indiscriminate. But his bestknown writings seem to have three things in common.

First and foremost is their relentless mediocrity. I cannot think of a historian or public intellectual who has managed to make himself so prominent in American public life without having put forward a single memorable idea, a single original analysis, or a single lapidary phrase -- let alone without publishing a book that has had any discernable impact. Mr. Brinkley is, to use Daniel Boorstin's famous words, a historian famous for being well-known.

By the way, on pp. 14-25 of the book, Brinkley notes the Houston Chronicle's fine science writer Eric Berger and his landmark December 2001 Chronicle story in which Eric predicted the dire impact of a storm such as Katrina on the New Orleans metro area. Eric began blogging at the beginning of the hurricane season last year, and he and I crossed paths as we encouraged New Orleans residents to evacuate on that fateful Saturday before Katrina hammered the upper Gulf Coast even as New Orleans Mayor Nagin continued to delay calling for a mandatory evacuation. Eric's blog became one of the "go-to" sources of information during last year's historic hurricane season, and that experience made me a regular reader of his blog and writings. I have not come across a better blog on science matters for laypersons than Eric's.

As with the Chronicle's recent innovative coverage of the Enron-related trials, Eric's blog is another example of the Chronicle's trendsetting initiative -- inspired by the Chronicle's fine technology writer, Dwight Silverman -- in blending traditional news reports with blogging to change the way in which major news events are covered. Houstonians tend to take the local daily for granted from time to time, but we should all appreciate the Chronicle's willingness to embrace this innovation that has dramatically improved the delivery of important information to citizens.

Posted by Tom at May 31, 2006 5:10 AM |

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