Monday, August 22, 2011

Katrina-- Storm Day (Part 3)

I’m not sure where I got this bit of information at, but I wanted to mention it before I get to the storm day.  I think Monday morning Blanco, the governor, hadn’t declared an emergency yet.  As a Democrat, she hated Bush.  She hated Bush so much, when he came to Baton Rouge to speak at LSU for commencement, she left the state for the weekend.  She made it clear on several occasions that Bush is not wanted in our state.  Anyway, Bush got on the line and told Blanco that she had 6 hours to declare an emergency or he would nationalize the state National Guard and take over.  She finally caved in.  The mainstream media portrayed Bush as slow moving to respond to the storm, but the truth was the governor wasn’t allowing the President to bring in FEMA or emergency help.  Partisan politics at its worst.

Woke up to a howling wind, around 6 am.  Rolled over, checked the tv.  Power is still up, internet is working, and we still had cable.  But I knew it couldn’t last.  Living in the older area around LSU means above ground power lines.  Every bad storm causes the lines to fall.  Checked on my roommate.  She was still at the winding down hurricane party across from the pool.  The apartment complex hadn’t done much to prepare for the storm other than put a flyer on everyone’s door saying that they recommend evacuation, and to clean out your fridge before you leave.  Oh, and they are not responsible for damages to your apartment or vehicles.  Some place. (I actually still had the flyer on the refrigerator 4 years later.  I thought it was that stupid that I shared it with others that visited.)   They left all the furniture around the pool out, which makes great projectiles when the wind picks up.  We were already a steady 40 mph from the east.  I threw all the furniture into the pool (it keeps it from flying away, and with plastics, it won’t damage the bottom). 

I made sure I had all my electronics unplugged except for a power strip with all the essentials being charged (cell phone, laptop, flashlights).  Looking out the window, Highland Road was empty (this is a main arterial, usually carrying 25k-30k cars a day), with only an occasional pick-up truck driving down it.  I figured that the power would have been out by now, so I took this rare opportunity to make breakfast with whatever I could find in the fridge.  Use it before I lose it. 

Went outside at 8 am.  Winds were up to about 60+mph still from the east.  If you look at a hurricane from space, it a spinning mass with a central “eye”.  The bands that radiate outward have rain, tornados, and more rain hidden in them.  Oddly enough, we were between 2 bands.  We got maybe ½ an inch of rain that entire day.  Areas to the north and south of us got almost a foot, but not us.  It made my hurricane watching more fun.  I brought my computer chair out to the outside stairwell and watched the trees sway, while enjoying a good cigar and strawberry margarita.  The fence to the east of us collapsed onto a row of parked cars.  No one I guess thought ahead regarding wind direction.  My car was on the other side, parked near the apartment building.  If the storm caused the wall to fail, then I would have bigger problems than no car, and the building would shield the car from most of the dangerous debris. 

By now Katrina had made landfall.  This means the eye of the storm is now over land.  In this case, the mouth of the Mississippi River.  If you have never been in the eye of a hurricane, I interviewed someone for a high school paper on Hurricane Camille who was in that eye.  Basically, the eye is the center of rotation.  There are usually no clouds, and the wind is dead calm.  If the storm has 100 mph winds, it will be blowing to the west at 100 mph, then dies out and the sun comes out as the eye crosses.  Most deaths from hurricanes by people that were in the eye are from them going outside to see the damage.  Because once the 20 mile wide eye passes, the 100 mph winds now go the opposite direction, or to the east. 

In New Orleans, they are getting close to 100 mph winds and 8-12 inches of rain an hour.  Most of the larger buildings downtown are getting their windows shattered by the gravel on the larger building’s roofs being thrown by the wind.  The pump building are being evacuated, for the pump worker’s safety, and the levees are still holding, but not for long.  Most of the paths out are impassible, because of the winds.  In New Orleans east, the twin spans of I-10 heading out are being destroyed by the storm surge, which is the water being literally being pushed by the storm winds.  It reaches almost 30 feet in elevation over regular tides.  The city, however, is on the west side of the eye of the storm, and had considerably less damaging winds.  Mississippi was about to get the brunt of Katrina’s fury.

As an engineer, I can explain how the bridges got damaged.  The piers going into the ground are only pounded about 100’ into the ground.  There is a pier cap installed over the 4 or fieve piers drilled.  The roadway, or deck, just rests on top of it, with maybe only a strap holding it on.  The theory is that the weight of the concrete holds the deck in place.  However, with a storm surge of 30 feet, the waves are high enough to crash on, under, and over the concrete.  Once submerged, the concrete deck, not being held down and with air trapped underneath, becomes more buoyant and is susceptible to being moved by wave action.  In Bay St. Louis, MS, the eye passed overhead and managed to not only throw the deck hundreds of feet, it managed to pull out the pylons driven into the ground. 

In Mississippi, the storm surge is about 30’.  The casinos on the coast have been emptied and sunk.  Procedure calls for the National Guard to enter the casinos once a mandatory evacuation is ordered and help secure the barge as the vaults are emptied and money and chips are escorted to a more secure location.  These barges have a few feet of water underneath and would be thrown over Hwy 90 and beached usually over the highway, causing traffic issues and looting (anything on the highway is considered public domain).  The solution is to sink them.  They are pretty hard to knock onto the shore once they have been sunk, and either way, the damage has been done.  Just less damage if you sink them intentionally. 

In Mississippi, the storm surge is taking its toll on the coast.  For every mile of land, the storm surge loses 1 foot of water.  With a 30 foot storm surge, and an elevation of 15 feet north of the beach and Hwy 90, I estimate the first 15 miles inland was flooded.  Almost every house in Pass Christian within a mile of the beach was wiped off the face of the earth.  When we visited after the storm, it was gut wrenching to see an area wiped off the map.  Literally.  The death toll was considerably lower on the Gulf Coast than New Orleans because of mentality.  On the Coast, where I went to high school, it was never about if the storm will come, but when.  It was never “God will move the storm somewhere else, and we can stay,” but it was when the storm was project to hit anywhere remotely near the Coast, we got the heck out.  Every time, because this time might be the big one. 

The Mississippi Attorney General also filed suit against all insurance companies as the storm made landfall.  He demanded that all companies made good and paid out to replace all of the covered houses.  The big debate after the storm that held up rebuilding on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was over what caused the home damage.  Was it the wind or was it the storm surge (water).  It sounds so stupid, but homeowner’s insurance covered damages done by wind, but the flood insurance covered it if the damage was caused by the water.  How moronic is that.  They fought and fought over it.  Neither wanted to pay, and would spend millions to trying to prove it was the other’s problem.  And these homeless gulf residents were the fodder in the middle. 

So there I was, around noon, on the side of the road, in an enclosed little bus stop, enjoying the howling wind.  The debris that was being blown about was picking up.  More leaves, small branches, papers, and trash.  A big branch about a quarter mile west fell into the road, making it impassable.  I watched a big 4x4 pickup truck come barreling down from the east, going about 70 in the 45 mph zone, when he just barely missed a car pulling out of their driveway.  That truck had to be driven by the biggest moron in town.  He wasn’t heading in the direction of a hospital, so I can’t imagine the reason for his hustle, but I had made up my mind in that moment that if he would have hit them, I would have tried to save the people in the little car first, then the truck.  It was really weird to think that, but at that moment, I knew that all bets on medical help would be off and I would have to triage on my own.  I was just glad the truck swerved and slammed on the breaks to miss the tree in the road.

I had a friend in Student Government, who had a job with the Governor’s office.  She was one of 6 people in the state who could sign checks bigger than $1 million and had the special seal and green pen.  She told me she was at her apartment near school right before the power went out and she heard a knock at the door.  She looked out the window and there was a Humvee with several National Guard troops, in full battle gear.  They “escorted” her into the Humvee and took her to State Emergency Operations Center.

12:15 pm.  The lights go out.  My cell phone has no service.  All circuits are busy right now.  The wind is maxing out right now and the wind direction is changing.  This means the storm is passing to the east of us and the worst is over, but we are due for more wind for 6 or so more hours.  I think we maxed out about 80-85 mph.  A good number of trees on Highland Road have fallen, no power, internet, or cable.  Phone service is overloaded.  For the first time ever, I am at home and completely cut off from the rest of the world. 

5:00 pm.  The partiers have fully awoken and noticed their beer and whisky supply has diminished from last night.  Panicking over their lack of foresight and their stupidity by opening and closing the freezer once the power went out, they have decided to use a BBQ grill and grill the contents of their freezer in the breezeway.  I had some ground beef set aside in the fridge so I could eat well that first night with my zip stove on my porch, but I decided to watch how the other half devolved in hours.  They had corn dogs they were roasting.  With cans of veggies, various meat, and another had a very sad time trying to cook a microwave meal on the grill.  These are people in college, and basic cooking skills were as foreign to them as ancient Sanskrit.  It was better than tv.  The storm had mostly passed New Orleans by now, and I had a windup radio.  There was no music anywhere, even those... national feed stations.  It was nothing but weather updates and people phoning in with power outages and downed trees.  Not like calling in the power outages helped.  95% of the east half of the state was without power.  Places in town hit harder would be without power for more than a month.  There was several stations we got from New Orleans and they were talking about levee breeches.  I called my dad, who was retired by then, and checked in with him and my grandparents.  To this day I remember asking him when they will be able to stop the flooding in New Orleans.  His answer was “when the water in the city was a high as the lake.  Then they can plug the leaks.”

6:15 pm.  The power comes back on.  I know, I really suffered.  But I didn’t lose my head.  All my food was still good, nothing was wasted on the BBQ grill.  Internet came back on, but no cable.  I know it sounds like a petty thing, but in the age of information, it’s important to see how the area fared from the storm.  NO is dominating the news, no word yet on how Mississippi fared.  I think this was the time of the first reports of the Superdome being a haven of rapists, murderers and other people just trying to survive. 

During the last storm (Ike), they opened the Superdome up as a shelter for those who couldn’t evacuate.  They looted the place.  They stopped up the toilets until they flooded.  They ripped cushions out of the seats.  They stole tvs, equipment, and anything that wasn’t bolted down.  After Ike passed, it took $10 million dollars to fix what thousands of “victims” destroyed.  Why wouldn’t they do the same now?

The radio station in NO (WWL) is now starting to take phone calls for missing people.  The station goes all night and into the next day with people calling to see if their loved ones are all right.  Some of the cell towers have been flooded out and are off-line, and very few phone calls can go in or out as far away as Baton Rouge.  Text messages become the preferred way to communicate.  I think it is because the system can hold the message until the phone gets reception, then downloads the message to the phone.  Several friends in the apartment complex make contact with their families this way.

Baton Rouge is starting to double in size starting tonight.  When the wind dies down, people that were sheltering in the surrounding areas start heading toward BR to get ready to return home to NO tomorrow.  The parking lots for anything near the interstate heading south to NO are full of RVs, campers, trailers and trucks.  All waiting.

But tomorrow is another day...


  1. Another good read. Why people would steal cushions from seats in a stadium... it's not like they are comfortable or even clean. Good old humanity.

    The image of a pool full of furniture was funny, hopefully you had a good time tossing it all in.

  2. Mudbug, I'm truly enjoying your articles...thanks and well done.

  3. Thanks everyone. I’m hoping to start the next one tomorrow. It starts to get a little fuzzy on the timeline and I’m trying to get good aerial photos of my old buildings so you can see how different places relate.

  4. Man, I am so glad I was not there. It's one thing to read about it in my comfortable room here, it's another to have been there. Good writing. I await the next installment.