Thoughts after Hurricane Katrina




Chuck Doswell


Posted: 11 September 2005 Updated: 11 December 2005 - fixed some spelling mistake and corrected some errors, as well as making minor revisions.

These are a meteorologist's thoughts following behind the tragedies wrought by Hurricane Katrina on 29 August 2005. Comments and suggestions can be sent to

1. Introduction

I've been a meteorologist for what amounts to most of my life, interested in storms in no small part because of their capacity to wreak havoc and destruction upon the works of humans. My passion to understand these events is clearly related to that overwhelming power that the atmosphere can exhibit. It's awe-inspiring and beautiful in a way, when beheld in the abstract. I have found, however, that in the here and now, at a personal level, that capacity is terrible and devastating. See my thoughts after the 03 May 1999 tornado outbreak.

The fact that I've spent this much time coming to understand storms of all sorts in the abstract, as a scientist has not meant that I'm content to leave it at that. By being a storm chaser, I've wanted to see these events in person, because no second hand account of a storm carries with it the emotional impact of seeing it for myself. I hasten to add that I've never chased hurricanes - I consider it unsafe to do so. [As some stupid storm chasers during Katrina have discovered for themselves, by getting into a situation where they had to be rescued. They're fortunate to be alive and should learn from this, but given their track record, I doubt they're smart enough to learn that lesson.]

I've also become interested in understanding where such events fit in the natural world. Why do we have such things and what roles do storms play in shaping the world? I've written elsewhere about the other side of severe weather and how humans should view severe weather. It's not evil or malevolent. Severe weather simply is a part of the biosphere - all of life on this planet is intimately connected to the nonliving processes, among which is the weather.

Humans put themselves in danger from the weather simply by being here. We were at risk from the moment we were born. It is only by statistics that we're relatively secure from the hazards posed by the weather, as discussed elsewhere - that is, really dangerous severe weather is a rare event, and any one place has only a small annual probability of experiencing extremely hazardous storms.

Nevertheless, the passage of time also brings a certain inevitability. If you wait long enough at that one place, it becomes increasingly likely that you'll have to confront an extreme weather event. I'm fond of the saying about geophysical hazards of any sort: "It's not a matter of if it's going to happen, it's a matter of when it's going to happen." The odds are irrelevant when a major severe weather event is bearing down on you. In the United States, we have an abundance of hazardous weather, and it becomes a virtual certainty that someone, somewhere in the contiguous 48 states is going to experience hazardous weather in any given year. Some years, the events are bigger and more widespread than in other years, but for the persons affected, a severe storm is nothing to be taken lightly. Nevertheless, it seems that for many, the remote chance of experiencing a major event is sufficiently remote that most people seem to feel that "It won't happen to me!"


2. Hazards of living on the Earth

Everyone is threatened by a variety of astrophysical and geophysical hazards. Generally speaking, if you consider the time scale of a human life, the prospects of a major astrophysical event (a large enough comet or asteroid impact capable of, at the least, threatening a mass extinction) are quite low. Major comet and/or asteroid encounters are at least tens of millions of years apart - on average. Of course, the average time between impacts is not a number to consider all that meaningful, as these events are not periodic - that is, they don't occur at some precisely defined interval. Rather, they're distributed across time irregularly, in such a way that they're unlikely in any given year, but the likelihood of experiencing one increases with time. If you could wait long enough, you'd eventually experience one firsthand.

Geological hazards include earthquakes and volcanoes, as well as landslides and tsunamis. Again, over the course of any human lifetime, the chances of experiencing a major geological hazard are low, but in this case, these hazards are mostly localized. Their distribution around the world is far from uniform, and in some locations, the geological hazard probabilities are much higher than in other places. If you live in California, you are much more likely to experience a serious earthquake than in, say, Illinois. On the other hand, in Illinois, it's the case that if you do experience a major earthquake, it might be an extremely severe one (e.g., the infamous New Madrid earthquake of December 1811).

Living near Mount Vesuvius in, say, Naples, Italy carries with it a much higher risk of a major volcanic eruption than living in, say, Florida.

As we saw on 26 December 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean pinpointed the risks of living in the coastal zone . This is by no means the first ever tsunami to take many lives in this general area - there was the major volcanic explosion of Krakatoa in 1883. But such events are obviously far from everyday experience.

As with astrophysical hazards, the longer the timespan, the more likely a truly cataclysmic event will occur. Clearly, the big geological events are more likely in certain areas than elsewhere.

The same principles apply to weather hazards. Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes are more common in the central United States than anywhere else on Earth. Living within regions where they are relatively common entails risks - risks that can be mitigated, of course. Those risks are not zero elsewhere, but if you live in, say, central Oklahoma, you had best think about what you would do, in advance. If you live outside the major threat zones, you probably should also consider doing some planning, in the unlikely event you find yourself in the path of a tornado. It isn't all that difficult to plan for such unlikely possibilities.

Hurricanes are not likely to pose much of a threat to folks in North Dakota, but are major hazards along the coasts of the U.S., especially along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast (sometimes referred to as the so-called "Eastern Seaboard"). If you live somewhere along these coasts, you have a relatively small chance of experiencing a major hurricane in any given year, but given enough time, it becomes inescapable. It will happen eventually. For Louisiana and Mississippi, the date was 29 August 2005 - Katrina - and whether anyone realizes it or not, Katrina was not the worst storm that could happen! But it was enough. Hurricane Camille hit in nearly the same area in 1969, but New Orleans was spared - that time.


3. New Orleans and "The Big One"

If we apply this principle - that hazardous weather is inevitable, given enough time - then this has some pretty important implications for how we should prepare. For astrophysical hazards, there's not a lot anyone could do on their own to improve their survival chances. With the full power of modern technology, we might be able to deflect an incoming comet or asteroid (as "shown" in recent Hollywood disaster movies, in a typical Hollywood fashion - that is, by stretching the truth to the breaking point) but it would take the combined efforts of many nations working together to accomplish that. And we haven't even begun to develop the means to accomplish this feat, despite the manifestly evident inevitability of one day having to do so. Apparently, it will take a crisis to produce substantive preparations, and by that time, with a previously-unknown comet, there might not be enough time to pull it off. At most, we would only have one shot, and the survival of our entire species could depend on doing it right the first time!

For geological hazards, the key to being prepared is to understand the risks of living in certain locations. It makes little sense to build one's home across an earthquake fault, or on the slopes of a volcano - nevertheless, people do it all the time. When the inevitable happens, they always seem rather surprised. And inclined to blame someone else for their troubles.

Living along the coasts puts you in danger from tsunamis, hurricanes, and even some major extratropical storms. They are beautiful, the coasts, but they have a level of associated danger that lurks beneath the surface of everyday life's benevolent beauty there. With time, that danger becomes an inexorable threat.

Everyone has known for decades that New Orleans is nothing less than a prime target for a major hurricane. Their situation of being nearly surrounded by water and yet having a good part of the city below sea level is a disaster that was primed to happen by the very act of building the city in that location. Years of development have eroded the Mississippi delta, slowly moving New Orleans closer to the Gulf, and its destiny. Given that it was inevitable that a major hurricane would eventually hit close enough to trigger catastrophic flooding of the city, it seems very odd now, in the wake of Katrina, to think that no one was willing to actually do anything to prevent that disaster. The real crime of this event is not the responses after the event, however one might feel about those responses - it's the lack of responsibility by governments and even ordinary citizens before the event that is criminally negligent. It's not as if this tragedy was not foreseen. The true tragedy is that it was foreseen and still no one actually did anything to prepare for it. We always seem to fall back on trying to blame someone for the consequences of events after the fact, in which we all had a part. Establishing blame has to be one of the most pointless exercises we humans engage in, but - it seems we're compelled to do so, anyway.

There were always only two real choices for New Orleans, of course.

  1. Abandon and relocate the city, which had been built where it would eventually be swept by floods, or
  2. Spend billions on a flood prevention system that could handle the worst-case scenario

In either of these, the costs would have been very high - tens of billions of dollars, at the least. Since no one chose to pay the price for either option, we're now paying the price for the flood disaster that had become inevitable - which might now be as high as $100 billion. It's like the old commercial - "Pay me now, or pay me later!" - but pay we will.


4. The futility of the indomitable spirit

After disasters (natural or otherwise), it's a common theme that there's a strong will to rebuild and recover. [It's somewhat ironic I'm working on this on the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.] After a tornado, it surely makes reasonable sense to rebuild. Unfortunately, if homes are rebuilt in the same shoddy ways that homes in central Oklahoma in the path of the 03 May 1999 tornado were built, this means that when the next tornado comes (as it will), it will have precisely the same unnecessarily large impact. We could prevent a lot of tornado damage with proper construction methods, but it seems that when most folks rebuild after a tornado, if they can afford to pay a higher price for a home, they prefer to invest in fancy kitchen cabinets or bathroom fixtures than in structural enhancements that hide behind the sheetrock wallboards. It's frustrating to see people making the same mistakes over and over again, even after disasters.

Rebuilding New Orleans in its present location after Katrina makes little sense, unless we're willing to pay more than just the cost of rebuilding. We also should pay for a huge system to hold back the flood waters associated with the next major hurricane to hit the city. This will cost many billions beyond the simple cost of rebuilding (which will be billions in its own right). I doubt that the rest of the country is going to be so flush with extra cash that we want to see national public funds expended to pay a premium price so that the city of New Orleans can survive the next big hurricane that inevitably will hit the city.

Moreover, given the abysmal track record of Army Corps of Engineers projects, it's not clear they can provide an absolute guarantee that any system they propose is going to be so bulletproof it can survive any conceivable hurricane event. The fact is that it's arrogant in the extreme to think that we're capable of "defeating" natural geophysical processes. Thus, any feasible project to "protect" New Orleans from the next big hurricane can't be absolutely guaranteed to work, regardless of its price tag!

Therefore, the indomitable spirit to rebuild is futile and misguided. The will to not be defeated by a disaster is inappropriate if the disaster is the result of a natural hazard. We will not defeat Nature - it's arrogant and ignorant to think we can. We need to learn how best to live with these hazards, and rebuilding New Orleans in its present location is not learning from our recent experience. If New Orleans is to be rebuilt, let it be in a place that's at least not below sea level. Given that sea level is rising, and the destruction of the natural barriers between the Gulf of Mexico and the city is likely to continue, the choice of where to rebuild the city is not clear, but it won't be very near to where the city is now. Relocating the city is the only sensible alternative, but - it's highly unlikely that the politicians will be able to resist that misplaced human desire to rebuild in the same place.

This is going to be a hard message to sell, unfortunately. Thus, the target surely will be rebuilt and reset in harm's way - only to be devastated again sometime in the future. This makes no sense. Of course, it's likely that resources will be spent trying to hold back the flood waters around the rebuilt city. They might even be enhanced to resist the next Katrina. But the next major hurricane could be worse than Katrina. What guarantees can be made that flood control measures will be capable of withstanding any conceivable hurricane? It is hubris to think we can do that without bankrupting ourselves in the process. We humans often behave as if we have no sense. It's hard to explain the logic of this to someone determined to rebuild, with roots in the soil of New Orleans. Their determination is, after all, not entirely logical.

Much the same can be said for other Katrina-affected regions along the Gulf coast. The expensive condos and beachfront homes should not be rebuilt. Many of the same areas that were blasted by Hurricane Camille in 1969 were devastated again by Katrina in 2005. How many times do we want to pay for rebuilding them? How many lives do we want to put at risk in the next major storm to hit the area? How much sense does it make to invest in development along the beaches of the Gulf Coast and East Coast? Several heads of the National Hurricane Center have been predicting these disasters for decades. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the opening salvo of a string of hurricane disasters in recent years. The message should be clear - but apparently it's still not clear enough. This development is simply a foolish waste and rebuilding after a disaster only sets up the next disaster down the road, with more lives lost and more destruction that could be prevented.


5. Who foots the bill?

The fact is that we all foot the bill. Insurance companies are not charitable organizations. If they pay out enough in claims, they have no choice but to raise premiums. Unfortunately, they're not likely to raise the insurance costs only for those taking the risks. We all are going to see higher premiums that will spread the cost of rebuilding after Katrina over the much wider base of policyholders everywhere. Hence, you and I will be paying extra premiums to rebuild homes and businesses that inevitably will be destroyed again.

Presidential disaster declarations provide for low-interest loans for homeowners to rebuild, including those who have no insurance. Since Federal funds expended as a result of disaster declarations come from the Federal coffers, taxpayers all over the US will have to eat a big share of the cost of rebuilding. If not in new taxes, this cost will be reflected in the fast-growing national debt that has been one of the key contributions of the George W. Bush administration. This will have a negative effect on our national economy, and some have speculated that Katrina could throw us into a recession, just as petroleum prices are skyrocketing. Only time will tell what the long-term impacts of Katrina will be.

I feel considerable compassion for those who have been affected by Katrina, but it's simply not sensible to allow them to rebuild their life just as it was before the hurricane. The message that Katrina has sent should be clear to all: rebuild in the same place and you'll eventually lose it all again. Resisting the urge to put it all back the way it was is not the easy way, nor is it the painless way, but it's the only sensible way. This nation has enough problems as it is - paying for the same mistakes repeatedly is not the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it predictably is what we will wind up doing.