Thursday, September 08, 2005

First reconstruction of flooding: results expose delays

The first computer reconstruction of the progress of the flooding in New Orleans has been completed and it lays bare delays in informing federal authorities of levee breaches.

Early in the morning on Monday 29th August, storm surge waters came into the city from the east. Within a couple of hours of that time, water was already pressing against levees and floodwalls. It’s thought the surge rushed up Lake Borgne near St Bernard, and was funnelled by v-shaped levees. This caused it to rise even further in height, overtopping the floodwalls by perhaps 5 feet.

It poured into the Industrial Canal and overflowed both sides of it, first little more than soaking surrounding streets. However a barge is thought to have broken loose on the canal and crashed through the floodwall, opening a breach which would have been opened further as the water rushed through.

The Lower Ninth Ward and St Bernard Parish were immediately flooded, and authorities were reporting water on both sides of the canal around 8am. By 9am, there was 6-8 feet of water in the Ward, one of the most low-lying areas, and by 11am most of St Bernard was under 10 feet of water with Interstate 10 covered at one low point near the Canal.

Around this time, it is thought, the 17th Street canal levee burst from a more gradual process: surge waters pressing against it. This was not seen to happen by officials: a police officer reported it from a distance later. It happened when the eye of Katrina had passed, so northerly winds would have pushed surge water in Lake Pontchartrain in a southerly direction, directly against the levees and canal locks. It is not clear when the floodwalls on the London Avenue Canal broke, but a similar time is probable.

The broken levees caused water to rise steadily overnight and into Tuesday which was when the world noticed that 80% of the city had succumbed.

However, federal officials, including FEMA, were not aware that levees had broken and caused such a massive inundation of water at the same time as the eastern surge. In fact, according to the above link:

“It was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the (17th Street canal) gap and that essentially the lake was going to start to drain into the city. I think that second catastrophe really caught everybody by surprise,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday, adding that he believed the breach had occurred Monday night or Tuesday morning. By that time, flooding from at least one of the two breached canals already had been under way all day Monday, evidence shows.

Even on Tuesday, as still-rising waters covered most of New Orleans, FEMA official Bill Lokey sounded a reassuring note in a Baton Rouge briefing.

“I don’t want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a bowl,” Lokey said. “That’s just not happening.”

As more news emerges which confirms tragic delays and lack of federal understanding and action, it has been announced that a House-Senate panel will investigate the US government’s preparation and response to Katrina. The panel will issue its findings by the 15th of February 2006.

House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi is calling for Michael Brown, FEMA’s second most important director, to be sacked as he has “absolutely no credentials” to do the job.In the Senate, Minority leader Harry Reid said the investigation should ask “how much time did the president spend dealing with this emerging crisis while he was on vacation”.

News from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has slowed as police deal with evacuating the remaining residents and pumping water out. The Army Corps of Engineers has made progress with repairing the city’s original pumps, and 23 of them are now working.

People are still being urged, rather than required, to leave, but GPS co-ordinates are noted for those who remain: they are expected to be forcibly removed soon as concerns rise over the harm floodwaters might do, contaminated as they are with bacteria and chemicals and what may eventually prove to be 25,000 corpses.

There is cultural news too, as reports emerge of museums, gardens and even ships damaged or spared by the hurricane’s advance. Louisiana’s historical paper materials, including civil war documents and city blueprints, are to be salvaged starting this week.

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