Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hurricane Katrina, T- 2days to about T-48 hours to landfall, Part 1 of many

Hurricane Katrina, T- 2days to about T-48 hours to landfall

You will have to forgive me, it’s been five years.  Some of the events and timelines are a little fuzzy as some of the finer details start to be erased by the passage of time.  Below is the National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast for August 27, 2005.  By then, I had finished my first week of my sophomore year of college at LSU, and was picking up extra hours in the wind tunnel lab for LSU’s Hurricane Center. Ironically, we were doing wind loading testing for the East Jefferson Parish Hospital in NO.  When the hurricane watch (HW) has been issued for south Louisiana, a multitude of events begin.  I’m sure that local and state emergency agencies had been working full time since the storm entered the Gulf.  (Actually, each May, the state does various emergency drills, from traffic flow to hospital triage.  Me and several friends usually volunteer to be bodies going into the ER.)  The hurricane watch triggers the mandatory evacuations (ME) of the lower lying areas, which include everything south of the Intracoastal Waterway (IW) from New Orleans to Morgan City.   Voluntary evacuations (VE) are issued for pretty much everything north of that to Interstate 10.  This is the point that everyone starts to go nuts. 

To give some plane of reference, I was living at the time in Baton Rouge, 65 miles NW from NO up I-10.  My grandparents lived 30 minutes SW of NO down US 90, 5 miles north of the IW.  My high school is in Bay St. Louis, MS.  If you look at the NHC map above and follow the coast of MS from LA, the first “bump” along the shore is the bay of St. Louis, and Bay St. Louis is on the western shore of that bay.  (Hurricane Camille in 1969 put 20+ feet of water in the school and church.  The school is located on the shoreline.)  My family background at the time was my mother was a travelling ER nurse located in Oxnard, CA at the time, but transferred the week after the storm for an assignment with FEMA, vaccinating personnel going into NO after the storm.  My father, over the years, was Director of Public Works for St. Bernard Parish (NO East), St. Charles Parish (Parish just west of NO), and Asst. DPW for Baton Rouge for decades.  He was retired at the time.  Actually, this was the first hurricane that I had been through that my parents were not manning Civil Defense or the ER. 

Back to me.  When the HW was issued, I biked home and started prepping.  Every May, I get a BOB and a bug in kit ready for hurricanes.  I started filling my freezer with gallon Ziploc bags of water.  The theory was, when the power went out, the ice blocks would keep the contents colder for days, and I could drink the water if necessary.  I also prepped the BOB again, with stuff for my roommate, who had just moved here from VA.  Her first hurricane and I knew she had no earthly idea what to do.

The stores were packed, and were cleared out in hours.  Home Depot and Lowe’s were flooded with sheeple buying plywood, nails, tarps, batteries, generators, anything they could get their hands on.  It was busy, but no fights and looting...yet.  Here in Tigerland (the suburbs surrounding LSU where the students live), the liquor stores were being emptied in a hurry.  I think I went down the street to the liquor store to get a frozen strawberry daiquiri bucket for the freezer and a couple of cigars.  Several of the students from northern areas were packing up and leaving, while the students with parents from the south were getting ready to receive their families.  The smart people were evacuating the southern areas before contra-flow started. 

Contraflow is a process designed by one of my college professors where all lanes of the Interstate and highways are rerouted to go one direction.  It cuts the evacuation time in half.  Now, you must realize that NO is surrounded by water: Lake Ponchatrain to the north, the Gulf to the east, Mississippi River to the south, and the Bonnie Carre spillway to the west.  The only way to enter or leave NO is over a bridge.  With that being said, the only routes out are:
·         Lake Ponchatrain Causeway, heading to the North Shore area, I-55 to Jackson, MS
·         I-10 E, heading to Baton Rouge
·         US 61, heading to Baton Rouge
·         Huey P. Long Bridge, US 90, heading south (Not an option)
·         Greater NO Bridge, US 90, heading south (Not an option)
·         US 90, heading east, only 2 lanes out of town (Not an option)
·         I-10 W, heading to Biloxi MS (not an option), heading to Jackson, MS

The not an option roads either lead to a ME area or to an area that is heading towards them to evacuate.  Now, 1.2 million people are in the greater NO area and have the above roads to use.  The inherent problem wasn’t how to get out, or when to get out, but rather if I want to get out.  When the order to evacuate was issued, the smarter ones left when the traffic was lighter.  Everyone else took their time to leave.  The reason was economics.

Hurricane Ivan was projected to hit NO on September 16, 2004.  The evacuation order was given.  Contraflow was started, and most of the city evacuated.  Since it was the first time the system had been tested, there were glitches.  The hour drive from NO to BR took over 16 hours.   There were no hotels and no shelters set up.  When people got to BR, instead of heading north, they camped out in parking lots and wherever they could find.  The storm turned east and hit Pensacola, FL, sparing NO.  However, the residents thought God would save them again and didn’t want to evacuate and waste money and time in the masses leaving the city.  They would be the equivalent to passengers on the Titanic standing at the bow, staring at the iceberg, thinking “the ship will turn, the ship will turn, the ship will turn...”

10pm.  The NHC changes the Hurricane Warning to a Hurricane Watch.  We will be hit.  LSU sends out an email cancelling school for the next week.  The LSU/ASU football opener is still on for next week in Tiger Stadium (we had to get our priorities straight, after all).  That night traffic was starting to pick up a lot outside the apartment as people started to prep or get out of dodge.

7am, Sunday August 28, 2005.  NO is under mandatory evacuation.  Contraflow is in place.  Louisiana State Police (LSP) has it set up.  From NO to BR, after the I-55/I-10 split in LaPlace, all 4 lanes of the interstate is flowing towards BR.  Every exit is blocked by the LSP.  No getting on I-10, and no getting off.  A few exits are open, but only so far as to allow people to gas up, go to the bathroom, and get back on the interstate.  This prevented the refugees from trying to camp out along the road, swamping all the small towns.  Every room in hotels and motels are booked. (Actually, the second that storm hit the gulf, every room south of Memphis on the coast becomes booked.  People learn to plan ahead.)  500,000 cars cross the Miss. River Bridge on average in BR every day.  Now it flows to the west, carrying NO with her.  That means that traffic is now on the surface streets and add that to the panic traffic, it makes the town a mess.  However, once you cross the Miss Bridge in BR, the interstate becomes 2 way again, so people are crowding the area over there looking for refuge. 

The kids at school are all organizing “hurricane parties” in the apartment complex for Monday night.  Local reports say that beer and liquor is no longer to be found in BR, along with bottled water, generators, and flashlights.


  1. Very interesting to hear first hand info. My Lexi book is in NO. May pick your brain since I have never been that direction.

  2. Good stuff! I like the time sequential observations. I await the next segment with anticipation.

  3. Interesting read for sure. Can't wait for the rest.

    The one and only time I went to NO, it was such a horrible experience that I actually told people that the best thing that could happen to NO was if they put a big drain in the middle of it and washed it away.

    Little did I know the power I had.