There will be all sorts of retrospectives about Katrina this weekend as we mark the fifth anniversary. It was the most devastating hurricane in generations. You have probably seen hours-upon-hours of video. There are still things you don’t know.
Though the forecast was a little sketchy early on by the time Katrina was steaming through the Gulf the forecast was well established. Weather Service warnings contained the strongest language I’ve ever seen!
But what good is a warning when you’ve got no way out? That was the problem that faced the very poor people of New Orleans.
The brunt of Hurricane Katrina wasn’t actually felt in New Orleans! If you’re looking for the real wind damage it was east on the Mississippi Coast.
No doubt New Orleans did have wind damage, but it wasn’t major devastation and we wouldn’t be having retrospectives today.
On the afternoon of Katrina’s Gulf landfall I remember an AccuWeather meteorologist appearing on Fox News to say New Orleans had dodged the bullet¹–and it had! The New Orleans flooding didn’t come until late Monday evening long after Katrina’s strongest winds were gone.
Anyone with rudimentary knowledge of New Orleans and tropical meteorology knew this tragedy was a possible outcome from a landfalling hurricane in a city built mainly below sea level². What we didn’t take into account was how this unfolded after-the-fact.
The storm hit early on Monday. Here’s what I wrote a little after 3:00 AM Tuesday morning
Rick Sanchez was on the air, speaking by phone with someone from Tulane Hospital in New Orleans. The hospital’s spokesperson was talking about water – rising water.
The hospital had seen no real flooding while Hurricane Katrina passed by, but tonight, water had begun rushing in and it was rising at an alarming rate.
I could hear the fear in her voice as she described the water level rising an inch every five minutes. That’s a foot an hour. Already there was six feet of water outside the hospital. Soon, water would reach the level of their emergency generators on the second floor.
Sanchez was taken aback. I’m not sure he originally understood what she was saying. It was so unexpected – so out of context.
She said a levee keeping Lake Ponchartrain out of New Orleans had been breached. The cut in the levee was two blocks long and water was rushing in unimpeded. Even if there were pumps working, and she wasn’t sure there were, they wouldn’t be able to keep up with this deluge.
On CNN, Rick Sanchez kept asking questions, but it was obvious this woman wanted to get off the phone. Speaking to him wasn’t going to help her.
I heard terror in her voice.
That was the first anyone outside the 9th Ward heard about flooding. Silently and under cover of darkness Katrina was delivering her fateful blow… and she was already gone.
¹ – This is my memory from that time. I’d feel better with documentation. I mention AccuWeather because this is my recollection. Any corrections or clarifications are welcome.
² – New Orleans was originally a trading post built by the French. When Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville established the city he chose to build on the highest ground–the French Quarter. There was little flooding in the French Quarter.