Sunday, August 27, 2006

Isaac's Storm (op-ed) OR Katrina revisited

The levees broke one year ago today in the grand city of New Orleans after Katrina swept through. Is it the levee system’s fault? After all, their construction ended in the early part of the 20th century. Is it the city leaders' fault for ignoring Hurricane Betsy's levee breach in 1965?

Is it a mistake to blame Katrina for the New Orleans devastation? Doesn't the fault live within the levee system and a government that ignores its degeneration?

The weather service did an excellent job informing the gulf areas prior to Katrina’s landfall. Katrina actually pushed through New Orleans and was heading north when the heavy winds triggered levees to collapse. Many residents still wonder what produced the loud bang before the flooding began.

Imagine the loss of life if the weather service had not warned residents. The weather service follows strict procedures when faced with potentially devastating storms. Unlike the early years when eerie calm surfs and lack of birds signaled trouble.

In 1900 the US Weather Service was a small group of observation stations around the country. Most of these stations were run by hobbyists; say a cotton farmer or sailor with a penchant for atmospheric changes. In this, loose network of amateurish professionals, observation reports sent to headquarters in Washington DC took time. The telegraph office, usually located in town, could be miles away from the observer.

The Signal Corp trained an early observer, Isaac Cline, famous for his river weather predictions in 1882. From there he advanced in the professional ranks to man the observation station on Galveston Island, Texas in 1889.

By 1900, Galveston had become the third largest port in the US. It was the first city in Texas to have electricity, a post office, a law office, a private bank and a railroad system to the mainland. It was richer and grander than Houston with a population of around 35,000.

On the morning of September 8, 1900, Buford T. Morris woke to an unusual site. “The sky seemed to be made of mother of pearl; gloriously pink, yet containing a fish-scale effect which reflected all the colors of the rainbow. Never had I seen such a beautiful sky.”

Overnight 6,000 residents of Galveston died in the “deadliest weather disaster in American history”. The category four hurricane, predicted by Isaac Cline, was also downplayed in the same breath. He believed the storm would pass north of the city and residents would be safe in their homes. A decision he would regret for the rest of his life.

The unbelievably forgotten Galveston tragedy as told in Erik Larson’ book, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, is eerily similar to Katrina. The storm surge on Mississippi’s gulf shores happened almost exactly as described in Galveston. The foibles of man’s risk, unchanged.

Note: Husband disagrees with said wife's opinion--Katrina is all to blame.

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