Katrina’s hard lessons

Anyone tuning into the United States National Weather Service on August 28, 2005, for an update on the Gulf Coast would have heard weatherman, Robert Ricks, provide an extraordinary forecast which he ended by emphatically stating: ‘Do Not Venture Outside’.

Ricks’s commentary had been very concise and specific: ‘most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. At least one half of well constructed homes will have roof and wall failure. The majority of industrial buildings will become non functional. High-rise office and apartment buildings will sway dangerously, a few to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out. Airborne debris will be widespread and may include heavy items such as household appliances and even light vehicles.

Ricks warned that there would lots of flying debris: ‘persons, pets and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death if struck’ he said, and sounding an even more apocalyptic note the weather forecaster added: ‘power outages will last for weeks as most power-poles will be down and transformers destroyed. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.’

By mid morning the following day Hurricane Katrina had ‘landed’ on the Louisiana coast.

Hurricane Katrina had begun in the Atlantic near the Bahamas, creating huge waves and sea surges along the Gulf Coast that flattened the areas around New Orleans: within several weeks another tidal wave swirled around the city, this one made of reports and headlines that law and order had broken down and anarchy was on the rampage on American soil. The military head-count in New Orleans went from 7,400 on August 29 to 46,000 by September 10 with the then Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco warning: ‘They (the Army) have M16’s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will’.

Meanwhile Blanco’s Federal Emergency Management Agency Director, Michael Brown, said his agency was working “under conditions of urban warfare,” while police ordered snipers onto roofs of police stations, and with all the local jails flooded the Greyhound bus station was used as a temporary jail.

There was looting and shooting, including the infamous Danziger Bridge incident when police shot and killed two men, including one who was mentally retarded, and as well as wounding four others, all men turning out to be unarmed.

Though the hurricane intensity was not so great in New Orleans itself, what would have undoubtedly been a huge, huge problem was turned into a catastrophe by collapses of the flood drainage walls protecting the city: the result was that 80% of the city was under-water, in places up to 4.5 metres deep. Adding to the hurricane threat, the risk factor was increased by human error and negligence: crucial flood protection work carried out by the US Army Corps of Engineers was heavily blamed in a series of later reports for bad design and construction that misapplied vital data about soil conditions under the city.

Hurricane Katrina is a good example of the ‘perfect storm’ scenario, with lessons and insights from Katrina about militarisation and securitisation around climate change and the impact of flooding. Firstly, militarisation is only as good as the people in the military carrying out their work: the work of the US Corps of Engineers in New Orleans was destroyed by human error. Secondly, in times of environmental crisis, authorities often turn to the armed forces as having the manpower and equipment; however, they may not have the correct equipment which occurred in the case of New Orleans with various army brigades arriving with only a handful of boats.

Thirdly, in conditions of catastrophe all systems of organisation and authority disappear to be replaced by lawlessness: opportunists can loot shops and banks, and take over neighbourhoods and enforce vigilante power. In countries with high gun ownership like the United States, violence – both actual and threatened – is likely to be increased in times of crisis, so the military response will often be hard.

The remarks by Governor Blanco also pointed to securitisation: she was messaging both a warning and a reassurance to the local population and to the wider world, especially President George Bush in The White House. The images ricocheting around the world of a crippled United States, unconcerned or unable to protect its own population, receiving offers of aid from more than 100 countries, only reaffirmed for many the sense, already crystallizing from the debacle in Iraq, of a failing super-power.

Furthermore, the level of survivors’ televised anger while dead bodies floated in the background, shocked the world: the images were real, uncensored, and raw. And finally, in the post-catastrophe chaos, securitisation has to move fast: with such devastation around there is the threat of disease from raw sewage and bodies, both human and animal, being left unattended, as well as from abandoned pets: it is estimated that 600,000 pets were abandoned or killed during Hurricane Katrina, with dogs roaming the streets in packs. By Jasper Humphreys.

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