Assume the Position

Thursday, September 15, 2005
25 Percent of John Solomon's 'Truth' Is All Wet

Associated Press writer John Solomon perpetuates a misconception instead of correcting it in his September 14th article, "Truth Is Casualty of Katrina's Aftermath."


President Bush said shortly after the disaster that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

In fact, many in New Orleans and the federal government anticipated exactly that scenario. And Strock's own comments make clear the Army Corps knew a hurricane over category 3 strength could pierce the levees.

The concerns were so serious that FEMA and the Homeland Security Department ran an exercise last year called "Hurricane Pam" that provided a dire prediction about a category 3 hurricane hitting New Orleans.

Flood waters would surge over levees, creating "a catastrophic mass casualty/mass evacuation" - 61,290 dead and 384,257 injured or sick in a catastrophic flood that would leave swaths of southeast Louisiana uninhabitable for more than a year, the Hurricane Pam exercise predicted.

Bush finally clarified his remarks Monday, saying his comment was meant to suggest that there had been a false sense of relief that the levees had held when the storm passed, only to break a few hours later.

But that too, doesn't pass muster. The Bush administration's own emergency preparedness site warns resident that big floods often don't occur right away but "generally develop over a period of days."

There is a huge difference between breaching/piercing and overtopping/surging over.

Here's a simplistic analogy. What would you expect to happen if you overfilled your bathtub?
a. The excess water will flow over the side and flood the bathroom.
b. The side of the bathtub will be pierced and the bathtub will empty through the breach, flooding the bathroom.

Everybody repeats over and over that the "levees were constructed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane," but doesn't explain what that means. The levees were built to a height to contain the estimated storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane. A higher storm surge would of course overflow and cause flooding, but the levees were not supposed to collapse under that flow. When the storm surge subsided below levee height, the levees should still be standing and holding back the rest of the water — just like your bathtub after you turn off the tap. Instead, the levees breached in several places so that even after Lake Pontchartrain had gone down to levee height, lakewater still flowed through those gaps.

Scott Shane and Eric Lipton nailed that in their New York Times article, "Government Saw Flood Risk but Not Levee Failure," back on September 2nd.

Local, state and federal officials, for example, have cooperated on disaster planning. In 2000, they studied the impact of a fictional "Hurricane Zebra"; last year they drilled with "Hurricane Pam."

Neither exercise expected the levees to fail.

Army Corps personnel, in charge of maintaining the levees in New Orleans, started to secure the locks, floodgates and other equipment, said Greg Breerwood, deputy district engineer for project management at the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We knew if it was going to be a Category 5, some levees and some flood walls would be overtopped," he said. "We never did think they would actually be breached."

Flooding of low areas was expected, thus the call for evacuation; what was not expected was continued flooding through holes in the levees after the storm surge subsided. (There is, of course, a difference between what is expected and everything in the realm of possibility. It was always possible for a levee to be breached.)

Bush, DHS, FEMA and other people in the administration don't get off the hook for being inarticulate and failing to to say the above in a clear soundbite: We expected some water to go over the levees, but we didn't expect any levees to collapse. That would have saved them some trouble from folks who didn't know the difference between breaching and overtopping, and didn't bother to find out.

(Solomon's "big floods often don't occur right away but 'generally develop over a period of days,'" is a warning normally associated with floods from spring runoff or heavy rains, not storm surges. So it's his comment that doesn't really pass muster. However, Solomon seems to do OK with the other three issues he tackles: levee repairs, fingerpointing and the Iraq effect.)

Original content copyright © 2002-2005 Lynxx Pherrett. All rights reserved.