A Million Refugees in a First World Country

Imagine the entire population of Munich, of Lyon or of Copenhagen evacuated because of a natural disaster. That’s the situation now in the New Orleans area.

As I write, it’s the dead of night over there, and it is not clear whether the levee breaks, particularly the one near 17th Street that had been keeping out Lake Ponchartrain, have been plugged.

Reports are conflicting — the local newspaper evacuated yesterday and has become essentially a blog; the blogs of local radio and tv stations give differing accounts — on whether water is still pouring into the city or not. WWL reports (scroll down to 8:04pm) that helicopters scheduled to drop tons of sand into the breach did not show up; other media say they did.

Until that gap — estimated at 150 meters in width — is plugged, New Orleans on the east bank of the Mississippi River will remain a tidal estuary of Lake Ponchartrain. Our Dutch readers will appreciate the scale and severity of the problem. Water will pour into the city until it reaches the level of the lake, which will mean what the world knows as New Orleans will be under three to four meters of water. (The West Bank will be dry, as will a few isolated areas.)

I’ve written about hurricanes and New Orleans before, ending, “Eventually, they say, a major hurricane will inevitably hit New Orleans; I just hope it isn?t this one [Ivan].” One year later, “inevitably” turned into today; Katrina was the Big One.

The stupefyingly strong winds that hit Gulfport and Biloxi (who have a tragedy of the first order to cope with) would have made things worse, possibly much worse, but the real worry for New Orleans has always been that one or more of the dikes protecting the city would give way. That’s happened. A good elevation map is here (pdf), but none of it is positive news. With reports coming in containing phrases like “fill the bowl” and “point of no return” it appears that about the only thing left to go wrong is for backflooding to sap one of the Mississippi River dikes, bringing in water from the other side.

Louisiana now faces its greatest crisis of governance since 1927. (That’s the year Mississippi River floodwaters stretched a hundred miles from east to west in some places, and floods inundated land from Illinois all the way to the sea.) America has a significant domestic crisis to cope with.

There is no power to run the pumping stations that would clear the water. Gas mains are breached; some natural gas fires are burning underneatah the water. Drinking water is already a problem in some places; uprooted trees took the water mains with them. Phone service is limited at best, and the backup power on the mobile phone antennas has long since run out. The body count will be high; at present, authorities are not even trying to recover bodies, as they are too busy trying to rescue the living.

New Orleans and the surrounding areas are essentially under martial law until further notice. Residents of Jefferson Parish (the area immediately east of the city center) have been told they will be admitted in a week to pick up belongings, and they should then depart again for at least a month. Schools in the city may re-open by December. They may not. The city is linked to the east by interstate (autobahn) bridges; nearly half of the spans were taken out by the storm, and complete repairs may take years.

As far as I know, there was no plan for what to do with a million people displaced for weeks or months. There will have to be one soon, because that’s what America now has.

From over here, probably the best way to help is to donate to the American Red Cross.

I can’t think of a European city that lives under a similar threat, which is a good thing, but the situation in New Orleans is of course a reminder that disaster preparedness is usually a low priority item. Until it becomes terribly, terribly important.

Update: Can’t find the reference for it now, but at least one of the articles I read this morning suggests that backflooding to the Mississippi dykes is unlikely. The land in the French Quarter is the highest in the city and may stay dry, or at least dry-ish, and since that’s what is right against the river dykes, these are likely to hold. Also, the summer has been drier than usual in the Mississippi basin, so the river is relatively low. Otherwise, the news is almost unremittingly bad. The holes may not be plugged for days, the hurricane has increased the height differential between the lake and the city, the lake is still overtopping levees to the east, and some of the devices that keep water from getting into the city will soon make it difficult to get water out.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast is faring worse, except for having fewer people involved and not having a lake to flood what’s left. The media warnings concentrated so strongly on New Orleans that a lower percentage of people evacuated, making the casualty rate higher. The phrase that keeps coming up is “worse than Camille,” which is local shorthand for “worse than the worst storm that’s ever happened here.”

20 thoughts on “A Million Refugees in a First World Country

  1. Quite. The moment the floods receed they’ll be re-carparking the wetland flood plains who’s absence exacerbated this carnage.

    Meanwhile the death toll of one riot in Iraq climbs to 600. (Will that story even run in America?)

  2. To answer your question… “600 dead in Iraq” is the only story, other than Katrina’s devastation, that is running on American television this morning.

  3. Thanks for the summary, I’ve only just caught up with this as I was reading up on Paris’s housing shortage. I would also like to recommend Making Light who have been providing good coverage and commentary. Three points they made have stuck in my mind:

    – A lot of the Louisiana National Guard who could be helping are in Iraq.

    – Evacuation relied on private cars, so bad luck if you’re poor (and probably black).

    – White people find things. Black people loot.

  4. Thanks for that Steve, I think this is where ‘blog-like’ communication helps by breaking down frontiers and stereotypes.

  5. I was much sadden to read/hear the terrible news about the aftermath of the Katrina hurricane and immediately recalled an American forum correspondent from New Orleans who often contributed to a UK forum on Compuserve some years back, before AOL completed its destruction.

    Btw on comparisons with European countries: “The [Netherlands] is flat, with over 25% of it below sea level. The balance of land averages only 37 [feet] above sea level. Much of the land that was once below sea level is today reclaimed and protected by 1,500 miles of dikes.”

  6. I can’t image New Orleans is going to be inhabitable for months, if ever again. The city is just destroyed. And Biloxi, Miss was just completely destroyed. And I think the loss of life will be much higher in Mississippi.

    New Orleans is an old city. It’s below sea level, and many of it’s structures are old, termite invested, and were built poorly. It was just a matter of time until a hurricane wreaked havoc.

    WWL in New Orleans has a running live feed on the web. The video is humbling.

  7. Thanks for that Rupert. I think we’re all thinking today of all the people involved and, for what it’s worth, all have my deepest sympathy.

  8. “Even worse, articles in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and public statements by emergency management chiefs in New Orleans make it clear that the Bush administration slashed the funding for the Corps of Engineers’ projects to strengthen and raise the New Orleans levees and diverted the money to the Iraq war.”

  9. I was first astonished and then appalled to read these news reports found from a google search on what had really happened to the funding of flood and hurricane protection projects in and around New Orleans:

    “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified millions of dollars in flood and hurricane protection projects in the New Orleans district. Chances are, though, most projects will not be funded in the president’s 2006 fiscal year budget to be released today. In general, funding for construction has been on a downward trend for the past several years, said Marcia Demma, chief of the New Orleans Corps’ programs management branch. In 2001, the New Orleans district spent $147 million on construction projects. When fiscal year 2005 wraps up Sept. 30, the Corps expects to have spent $82 million, a 44.2 percent reduction from 2001 expenditures.”

    “New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.

    “Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

    “Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security — coming at the same time as federal tax cuts — was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.”

    Do I hear impeachment?

  10. But who puts the federal budget for Congress to approve or amend? In any case, which party controls Congress?

    The coming midterm elections should be especially interesting.

  11. It rather looks as though those cuts in the funding of the flood and hurricane protection projects to finance the Iraq war are turning out to have very costly consequences:

    “People who thought of New Orleans only as a mecca of jazz and jambalaya are about to get a lesson in the unheralded commercial prominence of the Big Easy. . .

    “In coming weeks, the economic fallout will ripple across the country. Is it enough to tip the United States into recession? Probably not. But consumers will curse Katrina every time they gas up, and some major exporters already are puzzling over how they’ll reach customers if Louisiana ports remain idle for a significant period.

    “With global oil supplies already stretched, energy is the immediate worry. The gulf’s treasure-trove is its roughly 4,000 offshore oil-and-gas operations, connected to land by 33,000 miles of pipelines. Together, they account for more than one-quarter of total U.S. oil production. Louisiana’s Offshore Oil Platform, known as the LOOP, also is a major entry point for foreign oil.

    “Katrina wreaked havoc with that delicate network, prompting the evacuation of thousands of energy workers from more than half of the gulf’s nearly 1,000 manned platforms and rigs, the Minerals Management Service said. . . ”

  12. Yes, people forget that it became the city of jazz because it was a huge river and seagoing port and rail centre – and still is. Apparently there’s 1.6 million sacks of coffee, something like a quarter of the total US demand, rotting in the waters.

    In my own industry, it seems Sprint-Nextel mobile subscribers as far away as Florida are having trouble getting through because a lot of their long lines traffic passes through a switching centre that’s currently full of muddy water and probably alligators.

  13. The other thing I meant to commentise was that they are talking about sinking a container ship in the levee breach. Christ.

  14. All plans to repair the big levee breach have been postponed because of doubts that the remaining sections of the canal levee are strong enough to hold water pressure. The plan is now to cut the canal off from the lake, and then drain the city and the canal together … since the water in the lake and that in the city have equalized, I guess the urgent part of the civil engineering response is over.

    As for the long-term plan, who knows? A few years ago the Army Corps of Engineers reported that in the long run, no amount of engineering could prevent a catastrophic flood, eventually. There’s no away around the fact that confining the Mississippi between a pair of levees means that it dumps its silt load in its channel, rather than spreading it across the whole delta, which means the river keeps getting higher, and the sea keeps getting closer. There are only two viable long-term options: move the city, or move the river.

    It appears that evacuation of the Superdome began during the night, though only a few hundred people have arrived in Houston so far. Unless the rate of the evacuation speeds up dramatically (and it might, once daylight comes) it will be too late. Days surrounded by foul water, without sanitation, and at 35-degree temperatures, are a perfect recipe for cholera.

  15. The Port of South Louisiana is the largest port in the United States and the fifth-largest in the world. PoSL actaully stretches into coastal Mississippi, but that doesn’t help at all, as the MS Gulf Coast got hit even harder than New Orleans.

    We’re just beginning to see the impact of the storm, and we are about to find out just how flexible the US economy has actually become.

    If readers Over Here can get a copy, Rising Tide by John M. Barry is probably the best guide to long-term effects that you can find. It’s an account of the 1927 Mississippi River flood (which spared New Orleans, but why and how are a huge part of the story). I hope to find time to post about this tonight.

  16. Doug: You’re certainly not the only one to recommend that book. A Google cache of its Amazon page from a few months back gave a sales ranking of about 10,000, now at #94 on their sales rank and probably rising (it was at 200 when I looked earlier today)

    It looks interesting; thanks for the recommendation.

  17. Those of us in the United States are in shock. Those really deadly
    WMDs — indifference, stupidity, and incompetence — have been used
    against us by our own government, headed by the “Chief of the
    Compassionate Conservative And Oh Yeah By The Way Conspicuously
    Caucasian Caucus”. I am prepared to add another “C” to the
    alliterative scheme here: “Criminal”.

    Here the President’s party is already arming its canons against anyone
    who speaks out, claiming we are politicizing a tragedy. So I hope
    Europe continues to watch and speak and write about how it looks to
    see a country that claims it has all the answers for everyone, unable
    to manage its own affairs to keep its citizens safe.

    Thank you for permitting me to rant. I am numb with frustration and rage.

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