Waiting on Ike

Ike. When I started this blog back in early 2004, it never occurred to me that hurricanes would end up being a frequent topic.

Then, on August 27, 2005, many folks discovered this little corner of the blogosphere when this post was one of the first to predict the potential for disaster in New Orleans from an approaching Hurricane Katrina. The extraordinary exodus of Gulf Coast residents to Houston followed, along with the impact of that hurricane and others on the U.S. oil and gas industry, and — presto! — before you could blink, hurricane-related issues had become the subject of over 90 posts on this blog.

A few more hurricane-related posts may be on their way over the next several days as Hurricane Ike bears down on the Houston metropolitan area late today and through the morning tomorrow. Houston has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane since Hurricane Alicia ravaged the area in 1983 (the eye of that storm went over my house at the time), so many current residents of the city have not experienced a hurricane. That lack of experience, along with the large number of variables that are in play with regard to any hurricane, leads inevitably to some very poor decision-making.

The reality is that the best course of action for the vast majority of Houstonians is to stay put and ride out a storm of the size and intensity of Hurricane Ike (probably a category 2, maybe a 3). Most of the Houston area is different from New Orleans in that it is farther from the coast and of higher elevation so that the threat of flooding is not as big an issue. Thus, outside of the areas of Houston that are close to the coast and are subject to flooding from the storm surge (primarily Galveston Island, the coastal area of Brazoria County and the areas adjacent to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay), Houston is mainly subject to damage from the wind during hurricanes.

Although hurricane-force winds over a prolonged period are certainly disconcerting, most reasonably-well constructed houses will endure those winds just fine without much damage. Yes, power may be lost for awhile (some parts of Houston were without power for over a month after Alicia) and there is always the risk of tornadoes cropping up as the hurricane passes through. But staying put allows homeowners to take immediate action to mitigate damage to their homes if damage occurs and avoids the not insubstantial risk of injury involved in getting on the road with hundreds of thousands of mandatory evacuees making their way through Houston to a place where they can ride out the storm.

One thing that everyone should do regardless of whether they stay or evacuate is to make sure that, before the storm hits, all loose items on the outside of the house are secured or placed in a secure location inside the garage or house. In hurricane-force winds, those loose items can become projectiles that can break windows and cause other property damage. That — along with downed trees — is among the most common cause of property damage and injury during hurricanes outside the areas that are subject to coastal flooding.

As noted earlier here, the best information source for hurricanes these days is the Web and the blogosphere. Most of the local TV weather analysts are quite good (I prefer Frank Billingsley at KPRC), although the local television and radio coverage overall is often atrocious. The anchor people and news reporters often do not have enough to talk about and, thus, end up saying and doing absurd things just to generate attention. It is rather entertaining watching some of these folks make fools of themselves.

By the way, speaking of poor decisions, what on earth is the University of Houston doing playing Air Force in Dallas on Saturday afternoon (they were scheduled to play Saturday afternoon on the UH campus)? Not only is it irresponsible for UH officials to suggest that students and other supporters of the program clog one of the main evacuation routes out of Houston to attend the game, the game itself is likely to be played in driving rain and tropical storm-force winds as Ike passes through the Dallas area on Saturday afternoon. I know this is Texas and all, but Is it really that important to play a non-conference football game?

As long as I have access to power, I will be providing Twitter updates from the north suburban side of Houston during the storm. So, feel free to follow my updates by clicking on the hyperlink on the right side of this page.

Here comes Ike

Ike. Looks like we’re going to be dealing with another powerful hurricane (Ike) in the Gulf of Mexico late next week. Ay, yi, yi, yi, yi!

This earlier post in regard to Hurricane Gustav noted a number of excellent sources of Gulf hurricane-related information. Here is another one — Stormpulse. Check out the very well-done site.

The best Gulf Coast hurricane information source

Gustav.A2008243.1605.2km Hurricane Gustav is another powerful hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast, so I wanted to recommend Chron science reporter Eric Berger’s SciGuy blog as the best source of hurricane information for the Gulf Coast region.

Eric and I got to know each other over the fateful weekend of August 27-28, 2005 when we each posted one of the first blog posts in the blogosphere noting the dreaded turn of Hurricane Katrina toward New Orleans during the early morning hours of Saturday, August 27. Although we both recommended that New Orleans residents seriously consider immediate evacuation, local governmental officials in New Orleans did not do so until much later. We now know the result of that misjudgment. With that disaster in mind, at least I doubt that such misjudgments will be a problem this go-around, as New Orleans lawyer Ernie Svenson explains.

Since that time, Eric has developed his blog into the go-to source in the blogosphere for information on hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Bookmark it and check it regularly for updates on Gustav.

At this time, it looks as if Gustav will make landfall along the Louisiana coast just west of the New Orleans metropolitan area (check out this cool WSJ map that compares the projected path of Gustav with those of the deadly 2005 storms, Katrina and Rita, and this slick new MSNBC hurricane tracker). That track would put much of New Orleans in the storm’s northeastern quandrant, which is the most damaging part of the storm.

If that path holds, then post-landfall rainfall next week will be the main problem for the Houston area. The storm is expected to slow down somewhat after making landfall and become a tropical storm or depression in northwestern Louisiana and then northeastern Texas. The Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex has been in the throes of a drought for the past several months (as was Houston until the past couple of weeks or so), but that should end next week if Gustav continues its current course.

Dr. Pou’s fog of Katrina

Anna%20M%20Pou%20010808.jpgThis Dr. Susan Okie/New England Journal of Medicine article (H/T Kolahun) provides the most extensive analysis to date of the circumstances surrounding the tragic deaths of the nine New Orleans area hospital patients during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that led to the egregious prosecutorial decision to bring criminal charges against one of the treating physicians, former University of Texas Medical School physician, Dr. Anna Pou (previous posts here). Dr. Okie addresses the key question of why these nine patients died “. . . in light of the eventual evacuation of about 200 patients from [the hospital], including patients from the intensive care unit, premature infants, critically ill patients who required dialysis, patients with DNR orders, and two 400-lb men who could not walk.” It’s an important question to address, but not in the context of a criminal case.
The fog of war analogy is certainly appropriate. Even with as good information as we have about the horrific conditions at the hospital in the aftermath of Katrina, it’s still hard to imagine how difficult it was making even basic decisions in the face of the breakdown of civil society and infrastructure. What we do know is that Dr. Pou, who was not experienced in providing emergency medical services in what amounted to a heavy combat war zone, was no ethicist on mission to make a political statement. Rather, she was simply a physician doing the best she could to make the right decisions under the worst circumstances imaginable. It should not surprise us if, with the benefit of hindsight bias, some of those decisions would not have been the ones that a reasonable physician would have made under better conditions.

A real insurance fraud

Insurance%20fraud.jpgI’ve been meaning to pass along this James Q. Wilson/WSJ ($) op-ed that lucidly describes the crisis that has developed in property insurance markets along the Gulf Coast as a result of the litigation risk and attendant cost of clearly inapplicable claims being asserted against property insurance policies:

When Hurricane Katrina hit our southern coast, it was the worst natural disaster in American history, killing 1,800 people, forcing more than a million to evacuate the area, and putting four-fifths of New Orleans under water. In the struggle to recover from this event, people turned to their insurance companies for help. Thousands of claims were handled, but for some people there wasn’t any coverage. The problem was they were not insured against flooding.
Insurance companies’ policies are quite clear on this, and state insurance departments, including the ones in Mississippi and New Orleans, have approved these rules. The homeowners’ policy issued by State Farm, for example, says that water damage from a flood, waves, tidal waves, or a tsunami are not covered. . . .
The reason for the exclusion of water damage is quite clear: Hardly any insurance company wants to encourage people to build or occupy structures in places where such damage is likely. If they did allow this, either the company would go bankrupt from losses it could not pay or it would have to charge a premium so high that hardly anyone could afford the insurance. Even without water-damage coverage, insurance companies paid out around $40 billion to Katrina victims. [. . .]
Not content with these policies and rules, trial lawyers and politicians in Mississippi demanded that insurance companies should be required to pay for flood losses even though they were not covered by the policies. Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, a veteran of class-action suits, and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood worked together to create a lawsuit that would retrospectively ban the flood exclusion rule. (Mr. Scruggs was a major source of campaign money for Attorney General Hood.) At the same time, Rep. Gene Taylor from Mississippi urged Congress to require a retroactive payment of flood insurance. Never mind what the homeowners’ insurance policies said or what their coverage was, demanding money to which they were not entitled became “good public policy.” [. . .]
In time some measure of sanity was restored. A federal district court judge upheld the flood exclusion in insurance policies, a view that was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. More recently, the Fifth Circuit has affirmed that there is no coverage when an excluded peril (such as flooding) and a covered one (such as windstorms) both contribute to the same damage. A Louisiana state judge agreed that policies not written to provide flood insurance did not, in fact, provide it. . . .
But the return of sanity was of short duration. In June Mr. Scruggs filed a lawsuit against State Farm saying that it engaged in racketeering, and Attorney General Hood filed a new civil lawsuit — and then followed up with another grand jury investigation contrary to his prior agreement with State Farm. One wonders how its claims adjusters feel when they are told that they are no better than members of the Mafia.
In light of all this, State Farm announced earlier this year that it would no longer sell new homeowners’ policies in Mississippi, not to punish people there but because politicians had made it impossible to do business in an orderly way. In response, Attorney General Hood demanded that the governor order State Farm to write new policies. Gov. Haley Barbour replied, quite reasonably, that he does not have the authority to tell a private company that it must do business in his state. There will no doubt be congressional investigations of the insurance business because it did what it told people it was doing.

And Hood calls himself a public “servant” (see earlier post here)?

The Katrina legacy

katrina_box%20083007.jpgThe “News-Hurricane” category of this blog began with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The second post in that blog was this one in the early afternoon of Saturday, August 27, 2005, which was one of the first in the blogosphere warning of Katrina’s potential danger to the New Orleans area and urging citizens to evacuate immediately. Unfortunately, most of the folks who stayed and lost their lives in Katrina probably had no way to read the recommendation passed along in the final sentence of that post.
Over the past two years, the “News-Hurricanes” category has developed into a cross-section of articles and blog posts on the various legal, economic and political issues involved in the rebuilding of New Orleans. On the two year anniversary of the storm, here are several more good ones:

Reason Magazine’s Daniel Rothschild has traveled to New Orleans twenty times over the past two years reporting on the reconstruction. Here is the first installment of a three part series that is a must-read for anyone interested in the reconstruction of New Orleans;
The NY Times’ Adam Nossiter, who has also reported extensively on New Orleans over the past two years, provides this article entitled “Commemorations for a City 2 Years After Storm;”
Moneyball’s Michael Lewis writes about the risk of Hurricane Katrina;
Nicole Gelinas of City Journal writes on how the breakdown in law and order continues to hamper the rebuilding of New Orleans;
Ben C. Toledano argues that New Orleans effectively died long before the hurricane struck; and
This Associated Press story describes the difficult task of re-establishing New Orleans’ small businesses, which were a major source of job loss after Katrina (a point made at the time). One of the most interesting aspects of the story is one small businessman’s view on immigration:

“Trying to find workers, that’s the toughest thing,” [small businessman Robert] Thompson recalled. “The people we dealt with ó craftsmen, carpenters, electricians, roofers ó weren’t home and if they were, they were decimated themselves.”
Help did come in the first few weeks and months, in the form of workers from Honduras and Mexico who arrived in New Orleans to work in the rebuilding.
“Thank God for them, they were the work force for many, many months,” Thompson said.

In Dr. Pou’s words

Anna%20M%20Pou082707.jpgDr. Anna Pou (previous posts here), the former faculty member of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, performed heroically in the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For her heroism, she became the main subject of one of the most egregious examples of prosecutorial misconduct in recent memory. In this extensive Newsweek article, Dr. Pou finally tells her side of the story and it magnifies the enormity of the injustice that a few irresponsible Louisiana state officials have put her through. The following are a few tidbits:

What was it like after the levees broke?
Monday after the storm passed, we figured, ëOK, minimal damage; we began organizing how we were going to evacuate the hospital.í We didnít have full power so we needed to move patients. Tuesday morning we were planning our day and one of the nurses called me to the window and said youíve got to come see this. Water was gushing from the street. So we all kind of looked in disbelief. What is this? We could tell the city was flooding, you could see water down Claiborne Street. It was rising about a foot an hour. Then the whole mood at the hospital changed and what we were doing changed. We were in hurricane mode and we had to go into survival mode because we knew we had to be there for some time.
How did things change on Wednesday?
Tuesday night, we lost generator power, and that changed things a lot. ëTil then we were on generator power so we did have some lights, and we did have some water. Water wasnít clean, but it was running. But then we didnít have water, we didnít have any electricity, commodes were backing up everywhere. Conditions in the hospital started to deteriorate Tuesday night and early Wednesday. When that happens it makes care a lot more difficult. I was called to help suction a patient who had a tracheotomy but we had no suction running. We were going down to very, very basic care. You try every old-time method you can Ö [P]eople in charge were trying to get helicopters to come, [but] at that time we were told we were low priority. There were people on rooftops [who were going to get rescued first]. They said Ö thereís not going to be a lot of help coming, [so] what we decided [was] if helicopters were going to show up sporadically, we have to have patients ready and waiting to go. [. . .]
The conditions were unbearable. Inside the hospital it was pitch black, with odors, smell, human waste everywhere. It was very rancid. You would take a breath in and it would burn the back of your throat. The patients were very sick. Thatís when we had to go from triage to reverse triage because we came to realize if patients arenít being evacuated, [we had to deal with what we had]. Basically it was a general consensus that weíre not going to be able to save everybody. We hope that we can, but we realize everybody may not make it out. [. . .]
By the time Wednesday evening came around, if you can imagine in our mind, there is a central area that is a sea of people. A lot of very sick patients in that central triage area. Itís grossly backed up. Few patients had been evacuated. So there was just enough space to walk between the stretchers. It is extremely dark. Weíre having to care for patients by flashlight. There were patients that were moaning, patients that are crying. Weíre trying to cool them off. We had some dirty water we could use, some ice. We were sponging them down, giving them sips of bottled water, those who could drink. The heat wasóthere is no way to describe that heat. I was in it and I canít believe how hot it was. There are people fanning patients with cardboard, nurses everywhere, a few doctors and wall-to-wall patients. Patients are so frightened and weíre saying prayers with them. We kind of looked around at each other and said, ìYou know thereís not a whole lot we can really do for those people.î Weíre waiting [for help]. The people in that area could have [been evacuated] by boat but no boats were coming. I would do what I could with the nurses: changing diapers, cooling patients down with fanning. It wasnít like, ìIím a doctor, youíre a nurse.î We were all human beings trying to help another human being, whatever it took.
What happened Thursday?
On Thursday morning we were told nobody was coming and we had to fend for ourselves. Everybody was kind of like at a loss here. What is plan B? Or plan C?

Continue reading

What does the investment of a billion dollars in New Orleans generate?

New%20Orleans%20map%20082007.gifAccording to this NY Times article, apparently not much:

Six inches.
After two years and more than a billion dollars spent by the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild New Orleansís hurricane protection system, that is how much the water level is likely to be reduced if a big 1-in-100 flood hits Leah Pratcherís Gentilly neighborhood.
Looking over the maps that showed other possible water levels around the city, Ms. Pratcher grew increasingly furious. Her house got four feet of water after Hurricane Katrina, and still stands to get almost as much from a 1-in-100 flood. [ . . .]
New Orleans was swamped by Hurricane Katrina; now it is awash in data, studied obsessively in homes all over town. And the simple message conveyed by that data is that while parts of the city are substantially safer, others have changed little. New Orleans remains a very risky place to live.
The entire flood system still provides much less protection than New Orleans needs, and the pre-Katrina patchwork of levees, floodwalls and gates that a Corps of Engineers investigation called ìa system in name onlyî is still just that.
The corps has strengthened miles of floodwalls, but not always in places where people live. It has built up breached walls on the east side of one major canal, but left the west side, which stood up to Hurricane Katrina, lower and thus more vulnerable. It has not closed the canals that have often been described as funnels for floodwaters into the city. [. . .]
As a result, the city still lacks a system that can stand up to that 1-in-100 storm, let alone one like Hurricane Katrina, which the corps calls a 1-in-396 storm. The work that could build the more robust system ó originally estimated at $7 billion, and now at least twice that ó will not be completed until 2011 at the earliest, and experts agree that even that level of protection will be less than the city needs.
The corps is working on a two-year, $20 million study to find ways of providing even more protection, but it will not even be released until December.

Read the entire article. As noted in many posts over the past two years in the hurricane category of this blog, the performance of the various federal, state and local governmental entities in rebuilding New Orleans has been generally abysmal, at best.

Dr. Pou’s defense goes on the offensive

Anna%20M%20Pou072307.jpgThe state’s threat to prosecute Dr. Anna M. Pou for murder is a sad reflection of the incompetence in the Louisiana state government that permeated the preparations for and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After almost two years now of legal limbo, Dr. Pou’s defense team is fighting back:

Dr. Anna Pou – the physician arrested in the deaths of four patients at a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina – filed suit against the Louisiana Attorney General on Monday, accusing him of using her arrest to fuel his re-election bid.
The suit, filed in state court in Baton Rouge, also seeks to force the state to provide a legal defense for Pou against civil lawsuits filed by families of three of the patients.
Last year, State Attorney General Charles Foti claimed Pou and two nurses killed four people with a ëëlethal cocktail” at Memorial Medical Center during the chaotic conditions after the August 2005 storm. The four were among at least 34 who died at the sweltering, flooded hospital in the days following Katrina. Pou, who is free on bond, has not been formally charged. A New Orleans grand jury is looking into the case.
Foti had Pou arrested, ëëcalled an international press conference the next day to announce the arrest, made extra judicial comments totally contrary to the Rules of Professional Responsibility, and culminated the week’s activity with an attorney general fund raiser to showcase his ëachievements’ in the arrest of Dr. Pou and the two nurses,” the suit says.
Foti was not immediately available for comment . . .

Go Dr. Pou!

Katrina evacuees and the enduring nature of poverty

dome%20evacuees.jpgIn the summer of 2005, tens of thousands of citizens from the New Orleans area relocated to Houston and other cities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, most of whom never returned to their former home. A substantial number of those evacuees were poor and largely unemployed in the depressed New Orleans-area economy that existed even prior to the destruction of Katrina. Thus, the hope was that those evacuees would be able to improve their living standard by starting anew in economically vibrant areas such as Houston.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case. As this Jacob Vigdor post notes, research on the Katrina evacuees is indicating that the syndrome of poverty is extremely difficult to change:

Should governments help residents of depressed regions move towards more prosperous areas? Evidence from Katrina evacuees suggests that such efforts are likely to fail. The fortunes of long-term evacuees are almost completely unrelated to the characteristics of the cities to which they relocated. [. . .]
What can the world learn from the experiences of Hurricane Katrina evacuees? As indicated in other recent research carefully examining the impact of residential location on employment, moving a poor, undereducated citizen from a declining urban area to the middle of a vibrant economy is not likely to be a quick, cheap way to find him or her a job. While participants in a voluntary relocation programme would almost certainly be exposed to less personal trauma than Katrina evacuees, the survival instinct alone appears to be insufficient to guarantee success. Particularly in nations with social welfare systems more generous than the American model, the result of any such programme seems quite likely to increase, rather than assuage, drains on the public budget in the short-to-intermediate term.