On Katrina, My Family, And Knowing The Big One Was Coming

August 27, 2015 | 11:51 am
Roberto Mera
Former contributor

Hurricane Katrina devastated my home city of New Orleans in 2005, taking lives and erasing dreams. And it changed the fabric of the city.

The losses experienced from Katrina were partly due to the strength of the storm and also partly due to engineers’ underestimation of what a storm of this magnitude could do. Inadequate planning also played a role in the impacts faced by New Orleans.

The truth, however, is that Katrina could have been worse. Its track took it slightly to the east of New Orleans, sparing the city of the right front quadrant, the most dangerous part of the storm. In fact, the storm surge would have been similar to what was experienced in Mississippi during the storm if the center passed to the west of the city. The storm surge at Lakefront Airport was 11.8, while in Biloxi it measured 22 feet. Even a couple of feet higher than what was recorded in Lake Pontchartrain would have meant significant additional damage.

Growing up with hurricanes

When I was a middle school kid in 1992, I was obsessed with all things weather. I lived in Uptown New Orleans near the end of the St. Charles street car line. So when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida, entered the Gulf and aimed itself towards New Orleans, I convinced my family to drive as far away from the city as possible. They concurred. It was the power of the storm and the impact on people’s lives that struck me the most. And I knew I would study the weather and climate for the rest of my life.

I visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 2005, the last Mardi Gras before Katrina. I still have the cup from the Endymion Parade. Photo by author

I visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 2005, the last Mardi Gras before Katrina. I still have the cup from the Endymion Parade. Photo by author

Andrew wasn’t the big one. Not even close. The thermocline, an ocean layer in which warm water rapidly transitions to cold water, was too shallow. As Andrew came closer to the coast, the churning up of the upper ocean water layers brought up the cooler water from just below the surface and lowered the amount of warm water that fuels a hurricane.

But all of us residents knew the big one was coming. So every summer we waited and watched. We saw reinforcements made to the canals and bayous and the drainage systems. And we cruised by flood walls and locking gates and crossed over the various channels that led to Lake Pontchartrain.

Katrina strikes

I was in North Carolina during Katrina, a PhD student in climate science at NC State. When the hurricane aimed at Florida I got a phone call from my cousin in Miami. I told her to prepare for it, but that it wouldn’t be so bad. Miami and Ft. Lauderdale saw some damage, but it was only the beginning.

As Katrina entered the Gulf of Mexico, it was projected to hit somewhere along the Gulf Coast. As it got closer to the coast I called my friends in New Orleans but got no answer. I hoped that they were evacuating. My family had moved away a few years before. I watched in awe as the storm strengthened rapidly. After landfall on the morning of August 29 there was damage, but the city had been spared the worst. And then the levees broke and I watched the neighborhoods where my friends lived consumed by the water.

It had happened. The worst case scenario. The monster storm had flooded the city.

Repairs on 17th Street Canal. The water level is higher than the neighborhood. Photo by Infrogmation [link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Infrogmation https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MetOutletCanalDogwalkerBreechBkgrd.jpg ]

Repairs on 17th Street Canal. The water level is higher than the neighborhood. Photo: Wikimedia

Return after Katrina

I did not return to New Orleans until 2013. It was a different city. Some landmarks from my childhood were lost forever. The neighborhoods were pockmarked by missing houses and lingering wreckage. My old house survived the brunt of the flood since it was on relatively higher ground than the majority of the city. But there were scars: the magnolia tree my brother used to climb as a kid was gone, as were most of the original trees and wooden fences.

Downtown, the places I knew, like Charity Hospital, remained closed. One of my favorite restaurants on Roadway St. by the lake was also gone. All of those buildings were gone, swallowed by Lake Pontchartrain.

New Orleans is a sinking town. Most areas are well below sea level. You can see the barges crossing the Mississippi several feet higher than street level. The highest elevation in the city are the levees on the lake and river shores, acting like fortifications for a city surrounded by water. This is why the waters from the breaking flood walls turned the city into a bathtub.

The New Orleans house of my childhood was spared the worst of the floods. Image adapted after NOAA

The New Orleans house of my childhood was spared the worst of the floods. Image adapted from NOAA

Katrina’s legacy

Can we expect a hurricane like Katrina to strike the U.S. again? Yes. And even weaker hurricanes and extra-tropical systems could have more serious impacts due to sea level rise. We learned that with Sandy. We are heading into a world with warmer waters and stronger hurricanes. My early interest in weather informed my study and career in climate science and extreme events. The key now is to be better prepared than before and to support frontline communities.

South Louisiana’s strong research universities and community-based groups are working on this. University of New Orleans, a next door neighbor to my high school, Benjamin Franklin, has the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response & Technology (UNO-CHART). UNO-CHART works with communities to develop best practices for reducing risks. UNO’s Katrina@10 programming has highlighted successes and remaining needs in preparedness and recovery. Tulane, where my father went to graduate school, and LSU, where he was an Assistant Professor at the LSU Medical Center while I was growing up, have the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy and Resiliency Assistance Program, respectively. And local groups are coming together, under the banner Gulf South Rising to resist continuing unfair impacts from extreme weather. We’ll likely need more federal investments to better prepare our coasts, which supply so much economic activity with the seafood industry and port trade, as well as to protect the culture and people I love.