Friday, May 11, 2007

From late March: Katrina Death Toll Passes 4,000

Robert Lindsay, who's been tracking the Katrina death toll figures for quite a while, wrote on March 30 about testimony by Dr. Kevin Stephens, director of the New Orleans Health Department, at a March 13 hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations ("Post Katrina Health Care: Continuing Concerns and Immediate Needs in the New Orleans Region"). Lindsay:
...Residents reported observing a larger than usual number of death notices in the newspaper, even long after Katrina and into 2006. At the same time, even months after the storm, residents reported going to more funerals than they ever had.

These anecdotal reports caused Stephens and a team to undertake a study to count the number of death notices in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and compare it to a reference year which would serve as a baseline. 2003 was chosen as a reference year. The data can be seen on page nine of the testimony linked above.

In the first six months of 2003, 5,544 deaths were counted. In the first six months of 2006, 7,902 were counted, an increase of 2,358 deaths over baseline in the post-Katrina period. Based on this, we will assign 2,358 deaths as caused by the accelerated death rates that occurred in New Orleans even long after the storm.

Although the population of New Orleans is only 1/2 what it was prior to the storm, the obituaries covered not only New Orleans but also included many of the refugees tossed about to various parts of the country.

Based on this new information, we can add the previous toll of 1,723 to the new post-Katrina figure of 2,358 to posit a new unofficial death toll of 4,081.
(Link to Lindsay's tally of 1,723 added). Dr. Stephens' testimony can be read here (Acrobat .PDF document), the hearing can be viewed here (.wvx file).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Serious weaknesses found in repaired New Orleans levees

Facing South:
With hurricane season less than a month away, experts from the United States and the Netherlands say flaws in New Orleans' repaired levee system could leave the region vulnerable to another disastrous breach like the one that occurred after Hurricane Katrina, which was the largest civil engineering disaster in U.S. history.

So warns a special report from National Geographic, which had Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley engineering professor and former chief engineer for Shell Oil Co., inspect the protective barriers. Bea found multiple weak spots in critical areas, according to the magazine:
The most serious flaws turned up in the rebuilt levees along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ship channel, which broke in more than 20 places when Katrina's storm surge pounded it, leading to devastating flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Bea found several areas where rainstorms have already eroded the newly rebuilt levees, particularly where they consist of a core of sandy and muddy soils topped with a cap of Mississippi clay. 'It's like icing on the top of angel food cake,' Bea says. 'These levees will not be here if you put a Katrina surge against them.' ...
More here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The one-two punch how New Orleans resident Tim ("Tim's ~ Nameless ~ Blog") describes what happened to a neighbor:
John lost his mother and brother in the past few months. You might say he lost them to Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, his story is not typical, but it is not all that uncommon either.

Sunday morning I wandered out of our FEMA Travel Trailer to look at the day. Across our vacant lot, across the lot next door made recently vacant as well, I saw John standing with his hands on his hips. I walked over to say hello. The house that used to stand next to our vacant lot was knocked down last week. The backhoe arrived late one afternoon and parked in the front yard. When I got home from work the next day, nothing but brown dirt remained. The only evidence of the house was a few glass shards and chips of brick.

It's one of those odd circumstances of urban living. We moved here about 6 years before Katrina, before the flood washed the neighbors away. John lived just two doors away. But I don't recall ever meeting him before this day. So as suddenly as the levees breached, as swiftly as the neighborhood had been doused, as quickly as that house between us had been ripped up and carted away, we stood there and talked as if we had been talking like this all along.

John told me that he had lived here since he was 10 years old. His mother and father had built one of the first homes in Vista Park. He said it was the second house on the whole street. He pointed to a white-brick house a few hundred feet away, telling me that was the only other one here back in the early days.

And now, John observed matter-of-factly, it's looking a lot like it did back then. Vacant land all around. A few houses and not much traffic.

John was soft-spoken and alert when I talked to him. But there was a slight slur as one side of his mouth lagged in movement. It was easy to guess that he was in his 60's; I wondered too if he had suffered a stroke recently.

The clear sky radiated a blueness that only occurs on the hottest days. The bright light of morning was tempered by the low humidity and light breeze of what was starting out to be a beautiful day. In stark contrast, John told me about the unhappy journey his life has become since that not-so-perfect-day in August 2005.

The Saturday before Katrina attacked, John and his elderly mother were planning to stay. They had stayed for Betsy. They had stayed for Camille. The street had never flooded and damage was mostly from a few fallen trees.

But Sunday morning John heard panic in the voices of the reporters and meteorologists on the TV. The hurricane had not turned. It was headed here. He heard desperation in the pleas of the Mayor and Governor. He decided to leave his childhood home, still expecting to come back in a few days. John took his mother to the north shore, to a house his brother owned on the relative high ground of St. Tammany Parish.

We all know what happened that Monday.

The weeks and months that followed have continued to be hard on John. Harder still on his family. His elderly mother was not able to return home, and his brother took up the job of filing the paperwork for insurance and government assistance. John was not specific--and I did not press for details--but at some point his brother was not able to go on. He killed himself less than a year after Katrina.

John's mother, now dealing with further grief, had to move to an assisted living facility. "She lasted six months," John says, so plainly that it startled me. As if her death from the one-two punch of a hurricane and a suicide was a given.

"And how about you?" I asked. "How are you getting along?"

He tells the same lie we all tell when asked. "Fine."
There's more at the link.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Where's New Orleans?

asks Tom Watson:
Two long debates, 18 candidates, four hours of naked ambition. No discussion of the great domestic failure of our times - the ongoing tragedy of the official national abandonment of New Orleans.

You would expect this from the Republicans; they posed as if angling for the mantle of Reagan at his tacky and Disneyesque "library" - all that's missing is the gruesome Leninesque attraction at the center - but they're really jockeying for the legacy of George W. Bush... [...]

Malign neglect is to be expected from the modern Republican Party, but where were the Democrats?

Why wasn't New Orleans front and center for the Democrats; why isn't a central issue on the campaign trail? Why don't all the candidate websites contain a plan, a proposal, the account of some working being done on behalf a great American city that is being allowed to die.

Here's a sad truth: American Idol did a better job in its recent fundraising campaign of highlighting the ongoing horror of southern Louisiana than did Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, and that talkative guy from Alaska in their nationally-televised first debate.
Personally, I'd give John Edwards at least a little more credit than that. From a Bob Herbert column in today's New York Times, reporting on an Edwards campaign visit to New Orleans:
[Edwards] said he would appoint a high-level official to take charge of the rebuilding, and he would have that person “report to me” every day. He said he would create 50,000 “steppingstone jobs,” in parks, recreation facilities and a variety of community projects, for New Orleans residents who have been unable to find any other work. And he said, “We’re also going to have to rebuild these levees.
But point taken. And not just about candidates, but about me.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

18 Missing Inches in New Orleans

18 Missing Inches in New Orleans (from "Armed Madhouse", Greg Palast):
On August 22, 2006, we were videotaping Katrina evacuees still held behind barbed wire in a trailer park encampment a hundred miles from New Orleans. It had been a year since the hurricane and 73,000 POW’s (Prisoners of Dubya) were still in mobile home Gulags. I arranged a surreptitious visit with Pamela Lewis, one of the unwilling guests of George Bush’s Guantanamo on wheels. She told me, “It’s a prison set-up” - except there are no home furloughs for these inmates because they no longer have homes. [...]

That Monday night, August 29, 2005, the sleepless crew at the state Emergency Operations Center, directing the response to Hurricane Katrina, were high-fiving it, relieved that Katrina had swung east of New Orleans, sparing the city from drowning.

They were wrong. The Army Corps, FEMA and White House knew for critical hours that the levees had begun to crack, but withheld the information for a day and night. The delay was deadly.

Van Heerden explained that levees don’t collapse in a single bang. First, there’s a small crack or two, a few feet wide, which take hours to burst open into visible floodways.

Had the state known New Orleans’ bulwark was failing, they would have shifted resources to get out those left in the danger zone. [...]

But why did the levees fail at all if the hurricane missed the city? The professor showed me a computer model indicating the levees were a foot and a half too short - the result of a technical error in the Army Corp of Engineer’s calculation of sea level when the levees were built beginning in the 1930s.

And the Bush crew knew it. Long before Katrina struck, the White House staff had sought van Heerden’s advice on coastal safety. So when the professor learned of the 18-inch error, he informed the White House directly. But this was advice they didn’t want to hear. The President had already sent the levee repair crew, the Army Corp of Engineers, to Afghanistan and Iraq.

UPDATE, 5/11: Van Heerden is also mentioned here in this blog, in connection with a NOVA program about the Katrina levee disasters.