Sunday, August 29, 2010

Remembering Hurricane Katrina: A First Responder’s View

katrina-08-29-2005-1315z2 Five years ago today, the mother of all Hurricanes made landfall, first near Buras, Louisiana in South Plaquemines Parish, and later near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  My home in Mobile, Alabama suffered minor roof damage and two downed oak trees.  To the south however, Bayou La Batre was swamped with a 10+ foot storm surge, devastating the small fishing village overlooking Mississippi Sound.

My background in engineering and construction makes me one of the first people to enter a storm-ravaged area.  We do damage assessments for the purposes of federal disaster declarations, insurance companies and state, local and federal government agencies.  We’re some of the first boots on the ground and we have near unrestricted access.

Right after the storm, I led an American Society of Civil Engineers’ damage assessment team in a survey of the three-county coastal area of South Mississippi.  A separate group of teams did similar damage assessments in Louisiana, but none of our people were allowed in New Orleans until many weeks after the storm.

The damage in Bayou La Batre was very bad, but nothing prepared me for the devastation I witnessed on the coast, just days after the storm passed. From Pascagoula west to Bay St. Louis, it was like a nuclear bomb had gone off.  I stood in an area that was once filled with single-family houses that had nothing standing.

The image below shows an example of what we saw.


Entire neighborhoods were wiped from the face of the earth.  Where houses had stood in block after city block, the only things remaining were concrete foundations, the occasional concrete steps to non-existent front doors, and centuries old Live Oak trees.  The trees were still standing, but salt water inundation killed almost all of them. 

In the high-resolution satellite image below, the brownish, orangish areas are what’s called the “wrack line.” It’s the debris caused by the storm surge, and it extended as much as three-quarters of a mile inland from the coast line.  In some locations, the wrack line was 350 yards wide and piled 40 feet high.  It stretched for miles upon miles of the coast.  Everything on the seaward side of the wrack line was destroyed.  As the wrack pilled up, it became something of a breakwater, protecting everything behind it from the raging floodwaters and towering waves.

This image is scaled and rotated for faster loading and proper orientation.  You can see the ultra-high resolution version of this shot here.


At the the port facilities in Gulfport, several hundred refrigerated containers were left in sturdy warehousing facilities to ride out the storm.  Port authorities secured them to the best of their abilities, but no one knew just how much energy all that water threw at the coast. The storm surge tossed these containers around like matchboxes, breaking them open and strewing their contents all over the place.  The stench of rotting chicken, rotting vegetables and fruit was gagging.  It was thick, wet and heavy, and no breeze from the water would blow it away from you. Since the flood water had penetrated every nook and cranny of the debris, so did the food items that floated in it.  Whole, previously frozen chicken carcasses were wedged between broken roof rafters.  Packages of bacon, sausage and processed meats were stuck between tree branches, beneath steps, into storm drains.  Breathing became nearly unbearable.  Several of our team members were overcome with nausea.  The heat, the humidity, the smell, the trauma was too much to bear.  We had to go.


Since we were one of the first damage assessment teams on the ground, part of our task was to get an early estimate of the storm surge elevation.  That is, we were tasked with determining the height of the surge at “ground zero.”  In the image below, a colleague of mine observes a benchmark elevation on a bridge near Bay St. Louis.  The elevation at the location is 19.1 feet above sea level.  Immediately behind the bridge wall are pine trees with the tell-tale rub-line clearly visible.  The rub-line is caused when floating debris impacts the trees and removes bark.  At this location, the center of the rub-line is approximately 6.0 feet above the benchmark, meaning that at this location, the storm surge was estimated to be a whopping 25 feet above sea level.  Additional measurements taken further east were on the order of 30 to 32 feet. It’s the highest measured storm surge in modern US History.


In the image below, you can see what happened to the bridge.  When this bridge was built, the construction methods of the time called for gravity mounting of the decking sections.  The sections were believed to be so heavy that simply placing them atop the bridge bents and using light steel bolts would suffice.  You can see the results of that.  The waves lifted the bridge sections off of their bents and either dropped them where they were, or moved them several yards away.


Some of the most tragic damage caused by Katrina’s storm surge was done to the area’s historic structures.  Buildings that were constructed in the antebellum period between 1820 and 1860 had stood through storms in 1906, 1916 and Camille in 1969.  They were no match for Katrina, and some of the most architecturally unique buildings on the Gulf Coast were obliterated.  St. Stanislaus College, founded in 1854 had only the church and a recently built student center escape catastrophic damage.  Waterfront cottages in Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Ocean Springs were wiped clean.

DSC_0109 DSC_0128

A favorite meme of the national news media had anchors and correspondents screaming at the camera: “WHERE ARE THE SUPPLIES?  WHERE IS FEMA?!?”

Here’s a major reason why supply lines were disrupted.  FEMA had staged hundreds of rail cars with food, water, medical supplies and other materials in areas believed to be lightly damaged by the storm.  What they didn’t anticipate was the near complete destruction of the rail lines themselves.  The railroad is more than one mile inland, and the top of the rail is supposed to be above the elevation of the 100-year flood event.  But Katrina was no 100-year event.


In Southern Mississippi, state and local coroners estimated that 175 people lost their lives during Katrina.  The National Guard was still doing door-to-door searches as we were working our way west.  From time to time, our paths crossed. In fact, we ran into the same Virginia National Guard unit three different times.  They declined to be photographed.  But in this image, which still sticks with me today, you can see the spray-painted marking designating that the house had been searched.  USANG search teams crawled over the wrack line to reach this house, where they found two.  In the one behind it, two more.


I pray all the time for the repose of the souls who lost their lives during the storm five years ago.  I can only imagine the horror of their last few hours, and the horrors of those who managed to survive.  At mass today, I prayed for them again, and prayed that a Katrina never comes here, or anywhere else, ever again.

I hope you will pray for the same.


  • Katrina lessons linger on Gulf Coast, 5 years after devastating hurricane came ashore
  • As national spotlight shines on Lower 9th Ward, 5 years after Katrina its residents feel forgotten
  • Louisianians Give Bush Higher Marks Than Obama for Crisis Response
  • After 5 years, Gulf coast residents risie from Katrina's wrath
  • Will South Mississippi be recovered in five more years?
  • Thanks to Doug Ross @ Journal for the linkage.

    Gimme some feedback in the comments.


    Guy Average said...

    Thanks very much for this post. It was extremely well done and interesting.

    My apologies if I set off your detector; I decided to leave a comment no matter what happened.