The disaster that was KatrinaThu, 1st Sep '05, 8:20 pm::

Exactly a week ago I casually mentioned that there was another hurricane on the horizon and wondered how it would shape up. Not even in my worst nightmares could I have witnessed the devastation that Hurricane Katrina has caused in the last five days. It was a Category Four hurricane when it hit the coast of the state of Louisiana on the gulf coast above the Gulf of Mexico.

Before it hit Louisiana, it passed through South-Eastern Florida as a Category One hurricane and it slowly gained strength sitting above the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexco. By last Thursday, everyone knew this was going to be a major hurricane with wind speeds of above 150 mph. My friend Kathleen called it the classic book case - the perfect example of a storm - something students decades from now will be learning in classrooms, on how it formed, how it gained strength, how it moved with tremendous force, and finally, how is destroyed every shred of civilization on half the gulf coast.

As many are already saying, this is going to effect pretty much every person in the US in a very short period of time. Katrina was not a typical storm or minor hurricane that ruined a few neighborhoods and took a few lives. Katrina is absolutely one of the largest natural disasters US has ever faced and the aftermath of this on society, politics, and the economy will be very horrendous.

Let's begin with the area most affected by Katrina - the City of New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA). Majority of the city of NOLA lies about ten feet below sea-level. And as you can see in this map, NOLA is bordered by two major lakes, a river, and the Gulf of Mexico. On top of it, the city is literally shaped like a bowl. It was no surprise to anyone that if the city was hit by a major hurricane, the bowl would fill up with water and there would be no way of draining the water because the sea-level is actually higher than the city.

And then it happened. Katrina hit slightly east of NOLA, barely missing the city, but the damage was done. The levees and barriers that block the river, lake, and sea-waters from flooding the city neighborhoods broke from the sheer water pressure. When a hurricane makes landfall, the ocean swells upwards and sea-water rushes inland. This is different from the kind of tsunami that hit South East-Asia late last year. Tsunamis travel very very fast, hundreds of mile an hour, and shock the coast with their impact, kinda like slapping someone really hard, sometimes multiple times, but then pulling away instantly. Storm surge is when the sea-water floods inland because of the suction created by winds on the water-body, as a result of which, the water does not recede back into the ocean as long as the winds persist. A storm surge is like sitting on someone's chest and gradually applying more and more pressure till their ribs burst and getting up slowly afterwards. Of course, both are just as ravaging to human livelihood.

So now you have a bowl-shaped city of over 1.3 million (13 lac) residents that got filled with water. There just isn't any way out other than physically pumping all the water back into the ocean and lakes - a process which will take months and months. For the first time since the San Fransisco Earthquake & Fire of 1906 has a major city been absolutely ruined like this. Eighty-percent of NOLA is still underwater and it will continue to remain so.

NOLA isn't the only city affected by Katrina. Hundreds of cities and small towns were affected. From the looks of it, Waveland, Mississippi, located north-east of NOLA was affected the worst as pretty much every house in the town is levelled. The town is no more. There are no houses or buildings standing, no electric poles upright, the trees have been uprooted or snapped into pieces, and for all intensive purposes, zipcode 39576 is non-existant henceforth. And this is but one of the hundreds of towns directly affected. WalMart has closed 123 stores and UPS has suspended shipment to 900 zipcodes indefinitely. This is about three to four percent of the entire country of US.

The immediate economic impact is something people always feared - rising price of gasoline - petrol & diesel. I purchased gas at $2.599/gallon yesterday and it's above $3/gallon today in my city. Elsewhere, people are paying upgrades of $5/gallon and many small towns in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and even Wisconsin have run out of gas. It is no secret that the entire economy of US relies very heavily on gas and rising prices could mean economic depression. The Port of Southern Louisiana is the largest port in the US, fifth-largest in the world.

Here is something that has blown my wits away. Back in June of this year, FX Network aired a mock-umentary titled "Oil Storm" (thanks Eric!) The synopsis of the story is that sometime around the Labor Day weekend (that is the coming weekend), a Category 6 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico slams into Louisiana, crushing the city of New Orleans and crippling the vital pipleline for refined oil that is Port Fourchon (more details). The movie "examines the ripple effect of that event and the ensuing cascade of disasters associated with it..." Basically, the first part of the movie about the hurricane has already come true and the next part, about oil prices is already coming true. You can read the synopsis yourself to see how the story unfolds and ends, but the scary thing is, back when the movie aired, everyone was mocking, insulting, and criticizing it. Now, not so much. Nobody believed that a hurricane could drown NOLA, cut off the nation's oil pipeline, or set the oil rigs afloat. Yet that is what happened. This time truth is eerily exactly like fiction.

The damage to public and private infrastructure is only overshadowed by the utter senseless degradation of human lives. Right now, hundreds of thousands of people in NOLA area are thirsty, hungry, have no shelter, and are being terrorized by street gangs. Reporter Anya Kamenetz writes, "the city of New Orleans has a 34 percent poverty rate, triple the national average. It's about 70 percent black. White flight, first to Jefferson Parish and then across Lake Pontchartrain, to the North Shore, has accomplished the desired aim of de facto segregation in the public schools, which are 93 percent black in Orleans Parish and some of the worst in the country." Now, the aftermath of the hurricane is not only a humanitarian issue but also a racial one. Right-and-left people are debating whether the US Federal Govt. is doing enough or not, whether the National Guard would have been moved to NOLA for support any faster if there was a higher percentage of white citizens.

Yahoo! has managed to stir up some controvery regarding two pictures captioned slightly differently. They even issued a public statement and removed one of the pictures. Apparently, the caption under the very dark skinned person said " A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans" while a picture of two light skinned persons was captioned, "Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store..." So dark people "loot" while fair people "find" right? The photographer of the second picture disagrees but for now, the issue has raised many a question.

Since eighty-percent of NOLA is currently underwater, some places as deep as twenty-feet, the only pictures and videos available of most areas are from helicopters. While thousands of people are being bussed from the drier areas in NOLA to nearby cities like Houston, Texas, there are thousands of people still stuck in their houses. Hundreds of dead bodies are floating on the streets and rescue workers can't do anything because they first have to help the victims who are still alive.

Any attempt to compare Katrina with the tsunami of 2004 is looked down upon right now because there was a tremendous loss of life in the latter. Additionally, tsunami was unpredictable while the weather channels along with the National Hurricane Center were blasting warnings for days before Katrina made landfall, giving people enough time to evacuate. Moreover, damages from tsunamis were not preventable while majority of the infrastructure destruction of Katrina could have been prevented as everyone knew the geography of NOLA and the nearby regions. And yet, I think there is a similarity despite what people say. The similarity is that poor people suffered. While they all knew about Katrina, there was little most of them could do. Many of the inner-city poor renters didn't have a car and the city of NOLA failed to provide public transporation to evacuate. So for no fault of their own, they were stuck. Sure, many of them might have intentionally chosen to hunker down and stay at home instead of going away, but now, they're all homeless.

NOLA has had near-hits many-a-time but this was the final blow. There is no City of New Orleans, Louisiana anymore. They will have to rebuild, almost from scratch. And so will the hundreds of towns with millions of people. It's hard to imagine that over a million people now have no homes, no jobs, no schools, and no life whatsoever. Everything will have to start from scratch. For the young it's not impossible but for people who have worked their entire lives to finally own a house, it's all gone. Sure, insurance will pay but what about the neighborhood. It's not there anymore. I'd love to see NOLA back on it's feet again but I highly doubt the Mardi Gras celebrations in 2006 (if at all) will be as carefree as this year's.

(I had written about seven more detailed paragraphs after this but due to a stupid mistake, I lost everything below this, hence rewriting it major parts of it. It always bums me out when I'm writing a long 'blog entry and lose part of it. I will fix the blog to not do this tomorrow but for now, I have to live with it. And since I'm too tired to rewrite everything, here's a summary of what I had written before.)

The political aspect of this entire disaster is no less complex. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had to halt all rescue operations in NOLA because of the danger to the lives of the rescuers. Violence has erupted in parts of the city with random acts of looting, rape, street-shooting, and sniper attacks. It's hard to believe but this is US and it seems like the Dark Ages. FEMA is not without controversy itself with two inexperienced directors, demotion from cabinet status, and refusal of funds to NOLA to strengthen the levees.

Louisiana is also holds half the world's supply of zinc and is a major manufacturer of industrial chemicals. There will be inflation in the short-term and dollar will fall in the ForEx markets. Oil will continue to rise for some time and a big part of US trade will be impacted, as LA is the primary port for US. Things aren't going to be pretty for the next few months and rebuilding will take a lot of time. People are dying on the streets, children are waddling through chest-high water, covered in feces, and dead bodies are floating everywhere. The biggest fear is the possibility of a pandemic of water-borne diseases.

I'm sure if anyone wants to learn more about the disaster there are a million places online to read from and hundreds of TV shows to watch. This was just a review of what I've heard, remotely seen, and learnt about Katrina and its aftermath. And here's hoping I never have to write such an entry again, though I think that's impossible. Nature is wild and very very powerful.

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