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Katrina Yet Again

The years we spent developing a strategy that would put the New Orleans New Urban Region and the State of Louisiana on a sustainable trajectory, 1972 to 1975, come back to haunt us every hurricane season. (End Note One.)


We are grateful that Hurricane Gustav skirted by New Orleans, causing minimal damage, and we hope that the good luck holds — for luck is the only thing averting another disaster. We also extend our sympathy to the wonderful citizens of Haiti. If only there were a way to ensure that aid would get to the citizens and not to the corrupt.


Each passing season — indeed, each new hurricane — teach new lessons. Gustav, Hanna and Ike offer quite a few that we can learn from. (End Note Two.)


Hurricane Prediction


The prediction of hurricane frequency, path and intensity is an inexact science, and always will be. Patrol planes, satellite images, multiple ground stations, computer models and the Internet help a lot but predictions are not infallible. (End Note Three.)


New technology provides more information and far better warning than was available when we first become interested in Atlantic hurricanes in the late ’60s. But there is a limit.


The path and intensity of Gustav before it made landfall in Louisiana last week is a case in point. Gustav was predicted to hit western Cuba as a Cat 3 storm and then strengthen to a Cat 4 tropical cyclone over the Gulf after clearing Cuba. In fact Gustav became a Cat 4 storm before it hit Cuba and was badly disorganized by its passage over the island. Anyone who could read radar could see the storm was disorganized and never became what the media and the politicians were hyping for almost two days before landfall on the Louisiana coast. The post-storm coverage makes these facts very clear.


Political Hype and Spin


Once cranked up, political hype and media spin is hard to correct, change or stop.


In the most recent encounters with hurricanes, politicians were trying to prevent further storm damage to their reputations and atone for ignoring Katrina before and after landfall in 2005. This time they could not stop talking about how much they cared (“I am really concerned about you, so I am going to fly down and talk to some evacuees”), how big and bad this storm was and how they were ready to help, even as radar showed Gustav disintegrating.


Once MainStream Media Enterprises pack up their anchors and gear and the executives establish a program schedule they just had to report “something.” And they did. Think of all the targeted advertising they sold covering a non-event and how much was collected via “pay per hit” contracts on web sites from traffic driven by the hype. (End Note Four.)


For citizens, the biggest advantage of new technology is gaining immediate access via the Internet to the latest observations and predictions. However, in the hands of Business-As-Usual politicians and MainStream Media this information may do more harm than good.


Alerts, advisories and even the issuing and lifting of evacuation “orders” have more to do with improving the image of politicians than the safety of citizens. The intentional politicizing of Agencies has undermined the believability of most “official” pronouncements – “Heck of a job, Brownie.” This is especially true when citizens can see for themselves what is happening without the spin and the hype.


Based on recent experience we would suggest that citizens be given a chance to evolve safe places to live and work in all locations subject to severe weather – and other predictable natural occurrences. Then give citizens access to the data and information and let them decide what to do on a Cluster-by-Cluster, Neighborhood-by- Neighborhood, Village-by-Village and Community-by- Community basis. The federal, top-down, command-and- no-follow-through does not work.


The Gulf Coast is Vulnerable


Even Gustav, a disorganized Cat 2 storm that degrades to Cat 1 upon hitting land, can cause damage and demonstrate the lack of long term preparation (rebuilt levies still not completed after three years), incompetent pre-storm preparation (barges and decommissioned ships not secured), “private” levy collapses threatening public interests, relief supplies staged in the wrong locations … the list goes on and on. Had Gustav followed the path of Katrina and had it been as powerful as Katrina, the property damage results would have been the same.


Infrastructure Is Deteriorating


It is not just the levies that are not ready for “The Big One.” The electrical power grid is frail and failing in the Gulf – and everywhere else. The same rotting wooden poles, the same overhanging trees … Power companies are busy fighting for more generation capacity from cheap fuels, bigger transmission grids and higher rates but are paying no attention to making fundamental improvements in the electrical distribution system.

The energy companies have made no contribution to a discussion of the imperative to evolve more functional and more secure settlement patterns – which are the only path to less consumption and more security.

And it is not just the power lines that are a problem. The Interstates are deteriorating, bridges are falling down, primary roadways flood in the same locations storm after storm. There are systemic deficiencies with water supply systems, storm water systems, the wastewater systems and communications systems, etc. It matters not if these vital services are run by Agencies, Enterprises or Institutions.


Citizens are stuck with least common denominator infrastructure and misled by Agency, Enterprise and Institution “leaders” who will not admit that it will take vast new capital commitments to build a sustainable physical support structure if anything approaching the sophisticated technology of contemporary society is to be maintained.


The Impact of Crying Wolf


In the face of dire warnings about Gustav, some residents of the Gulf coast did not evacuate because they did not think the storm looked “all that bad.” Many that did evacuate sat and cooled their heels after the storm while governance practitioners pretended to be “doing something” to make their return safe.


How many who did evacuate for Gustav will not do so the next time? We may find out soon. As of Saturday, Ike is on track to enter the Gulf of Mexico next Tuesday or Wednesday as a Cat 3 storm and is on a very similar course to the one Katrina followed three years ago.


Will it still be on track when this column is published on Monday? Who knows? But what will the governance practitioners say if it does, having spilled all the frightening adjectives on Gustav? And what will citizens do? And what if Ike is at least as powerful when it hits as Katrina was when it hit? What if Ike – or Marco or Nana – is really The Big One?


Not a Straight Line Projection


The impact of global climate change does not move in a straight line progression. The recent fire season is a case in point. Despite all the coverage of fires in northern California, so far – the fire season is over in Montana but not elsewhere – 2008 was the “best” fire year in the last five years with “only” 4.6 million acres burned. This year date is almost 2.5 million acres below the five year average and about 1.2 million acres below the 10-year average. But do not count on next year being even better.


Good sources of information about hurricanes abound. For example has a great archive that maps and provides data of all Atlantic hurricanes year by year from 1851 to 2008. Deadly hurricanes are not new. The most deadly one blew through the Caribbean in 1780. Katrina is only the 27th most deadly Atlantic hurricane since 1644 and only the third Atlantic hurricane to make the top 31 most deadly list in the last 40 years. On the other hand, five of the six most costly hurricanes – in current dollars – since 1851 have occurred in the last four years.

What do these facts tell us? Better information saves lives by alerting us to get out of harms way. But foolish settlement-pattern decisions — building in vulnerable areas — increases property damage.

Hurricanes predate recorded history in the Atlantic. They have occurred from March through January – so much for a “season” but that is another story. And about the future? There is almost universal agreement that the long-term trend is for warmer seas and for more, and more intensive, hurricanes.


The Ecological Bottom Line


There are many places on the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts and in the Caribbean that are not safe locations to encourage, much less permit permeate settlement unless they are designed, tested and regularly certified to withstand a Cat 5 plus hurricane.


The Gulf Coast is not a place to allow the agglomeration of a Megaregion as suggested by those who are now soaking up the big bucks from foundations to “envision” the US of A in 2050.


There is a larger reality applicable to every human settlement:

Humans must create a smaller, safer and sustainable ecological footprints for their habitation and sustenance within New Urban Regions and Urban Support Regions.

The annual hurricane season provides a good way to focus attention and the education to make this point. So far it is being squandered and obfuscated by political spin and MainStream Media hype.


Citizens need places that are safe – without evacuation, displacement or falling into refugee status. They need havens from hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, forest fires, volcanoes and other natural hazards. It is hard to dodge a comet or a meteor, but the smaller the footprint the less likely a direct hit.


— September 8, 2008



End Notes


(1). See “Down Memory Lane with Katrina,” 5 Sept 2005, and “A Second Stroll with Katrina,” 4 Sept 2007.


(2). There was not much worry about hurricanes growing up in Western Montana or later during the time we spent in Hawaii. But then in 1967 we moved to Puerto Rico. I drove a rag-top VW beetle to the south coast of the island to watch Cat 3 Beulah go by off shore – just to see what a hurricane was all about. Not long afterwards, we bought and stabilized a 18th-century sugar mill ruin on the north shore of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. For the next thirty years every hurricane season was a time of heightened alert. Due to work in Louisiana and family in Louisiana and Texas we have paid careful attention to every hurricane to threaten the Gulf coast since 1972. We sat out Agnes in a one-room log smoke house with a tin roof converted to a “sort of” guest cabin at Grimmets Chance, visited Dominica to see for ourselves the damage to old growth rain forest from David (1979), marveled at all the new red tin roofs in St. Thomas that Uncle Sugar provided after Hugo… There are a lot of memories and experiences with hurricanes besides the storms that have directly impacted the Atlantic coast where we have lived since 1972.


(3). There was a time that the only answer for “the hurricane season” was to avoid sailing far from shore in the Atlantic hurricane alley and in the Caribbean from July to November. The colonial powers – primarily England, France, Spain and Holland –  took their ships-of-the-line out of the region almost every year. Traders and merchant ships stayed away as well. This resulted in ‘hurricane peace’ and import-goods deprivation until after the Christmas / New Year holiday season. There was always a great celebration when the first cargo ships returned in the new year but the war ships came back too. For those living in the Caribbean and near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts the drill was to be alert for “doldrums,” put up the shutters and pray.


(4). The same unbalanced coverage happens for other “media storms.” The first thunder storm of the spring that blows down trees and provides images of punctured roofs and dented cars for the evening news sets off a pattern of over-hyping the next few thunderstorms. The same is true for blizzards. The first storm catches the media by surprise, but the next two or three get coverage to make up for missing the first one. See THE ESTATES MATRIX

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