Hurricane Katrina: The Catastrophe Begins

The time has arrived for unprecendented disaster. What could become the most destructive natural event to befall the United States, and the first one in modern times that could totally disable an entire, major American city, is looming just outside its fringes, rolling in uncontrollably. A defining event in our nation’s history is starting to happen right now.

[Other BLOGgers also are starting to notice this with as well — some posts being unique or insightful, many others being useless and/or incoherent.]

Yes, there are signs Katrina is weakening a little as it approaches the coast, which is common for hurricanes in this part of the world. The official bulletins note the decreasing central winds, causing Katrina to be classified as of now (730 UTC) as a category four storm. The satellite loops show some lopsidedness and raggedness in the cloud pattern that indicates dry air getting entrained into the system. The pressure is up to 915 millibars as of a 725 UTC aircraft reading.

Still, to put that into perspective, it still would have to fill by 7 millibars more to weaken enough to match the deepest barometric readings of Hurricane Andrew! And Katrina is a much larger vortex with a damaging wind field that will spread across large swaths of Louisnana, Mississippi and Alabama, spawning some tornadoes and major floods for perhaps several days to come and even farther inland. [Two hurricane chasers whom I know are in a concrete parking garage in Slidell at this moment, and will experience the blow of their lifetimes in the next several hours.]

But really, at this point, whether it is a high-end four or low-end five matter little. Even if this or even more weakening happens, there simply isn’t time anymore for Katrina to avoid absolutely devastating some areas around New Orleans, Slidell, Waveland, Bay St. Louis and perhaps Biloxi. Katrina is just too big and intense.

Against all hope, many of the most dreaded fears (including some I expressed yesterday morning) are about to come true in the new day’s forenoon hours and beyond. Even now, despite news reports and a mountainous avalanche of hype that (for once) is well deserved, I think some folks still don’t have an adequate grasp of the absolutely horrendous human and environmental toll that is starting to unfold, right now, as I type this in the early predawn hours of Monday morning.

Something close to a worst-case scenario for the New Orleans area is looking more and more likely by the minute as we watch the eye appear on radar and march steadily landward. Indeed, barring a very unexpected swerve, the center of the eye will pass just east of much of the New Orleans area. Hours and hours of strengthening easterly winds are driving water from Chandeleur Sound, Breton Sound and Lake Borgne into Lake Pontchartrain, where it will be trapped with little to do but rise. As the winds swing around to the north and northeast, already having done great damage to homes and buildings, the water dome will lean against and point the levees, probably overtaking them in some areas.

Once this happens, this saltwater will join any accumulated rainwater the pumping system couldn’t remove, and overwhelming the pumps (whose power sources themselves may be submerged). As this pours into the city and its suburbs, more rain will fall, the wind still remaining damaging for several hours.

Tomorrow, as the last high clouds recede in the northeast and dawn’s brilliant rays begin to shine upon New Orleans, the view you will see from the helicopters will be one of immense scope: water, dirty and murky, in between every building. Even this will be a sanitized vantage because the devil is in the details: the water within those buildings and the houses beneath the water.

By “water,” I really mean a festering cesspool of stagnant fluid, somewhat salty, and most certainly toxic. Expect all manner of household and industrial oils, greases and gasoline afloat upon the surface; wood, plastic trash and everything else that still can float bobbing in the slime. Perhaps this will include coffins pried from a few of the many mausoleums that house the Crescent City’s dead, or the contents of those coffins. Surely more than a few freshly killed bodies will drift on and under the surface of the new toxic lake as well. Underwater, or floating atop, will be numerous examples of almost any object that can be found in grocery stores, paint shops, car repair garages, offices, gas stations, personal houses, restaurants, warehouses, chemical labs, electronics stores, cars or trucks. Unseen and dissolved in the nasty murk will be a diluted mix of beer, printer cartridge ink, drugs both legal and illegal, milk, sugar, spoiling food, you name it. Anything which can leak, leach or spill into corrosive water, will.

My deepest hope now is for everyone left in that city to be above first floor in a well constructed building, preferably above second floor too, yet in an interior room or hallway, away from windows and with doors locked from the inside. My next hope is that they will survive with an adequate supply of bottled water and dry nonperishable food and be able to stay out of that awful water until rescue personnel can arrive — which may take many days.

Reality says that some percentage of folks aren’t and won’t, and either wouldn’t or couldn’t prepare for such circumstances. The question isn’t if there will be mass casualties, but how many and in what way.

See, the official forecasts over the past couple days look like they will go down as some of the best and most accurate ever! Yet still, dozens, maybe hundreds, will perish, simply because there still are so many people stuck in harm’s way. It is a situation like this that makes a meteorologist realize how absolutely worthless even the greatest predictions can be for those unable or unwilling to prepare and escape. And yet, how many thousands of lives are being saved because of those very same great forecasts which put the Integrated Warning System into motion and got the majority of folks out of harm’s way?

As the awful images begin to beam across our TV and computer monitors over the next few days, I’ll certainly mourn the dead and pray for the injured and stranded. But I’ll also think of the untold thousands upon thousands of people who were spared a horrific fate because your National Hurricane Center has the best — by far and bar none — hurricane forecasters the world ever has seen, and they did their jobs almost to perfection under some heavy circumstances.

You’ll see countless images of destruction, hear and read all sorts of gruesome tales from the Gulf Coast, pay a lot more for your gasoline, and watch stocks tumble and insurance rates soar, among other socioeconomic shock waves that will spread nationwide. There will be many pleas for help, from search and rescue operations to refugee housing to FEMA assistance, and most importantly, a flood of relief donations by individuals that eventually will overcome the storm’s flood of waters.

America will recover from this, bruised and hobbling but healing and determined. New Orleans may never be the same, but it will be back after a long cleanup and recovery. And most imortantly, a lot of folks still will be alive, who may never realize that the reason for it is the weather forecasts they buy in taxes for pennies a year.


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