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‘Washing Away’

Times-Picayune awards

This is the story of how we wrote the 2002 Times-Picayune series “Washing Away,” which set the stage for what would happen to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. For years, I had tried to convince my editors that we needed to explain to readers what would happen if a catastrophic hurricane hit New Orleans.

In 2001, they finally agreed to hear us out on writing a version of the story. But my doom-and-gloom reputation preceded me into the meeting, and one editor was having none of it. “This is just more of Schleifstein’s disaster porn,” he said.

I responded that like real pornography, disaster porn was in the eye of the beholder, and the 100,000 residents of New Orleans who didn’t own cars ought to know there was little chance they’d be evacuated from the city in time to escape in advance of a category 4 or 5 storm.

Our editors reluctantly agreed, but insisted on us narrowing our focus away from the worst-case incident. I was teamed with John McQuaid, who covered environmental issues in our Washington bureau and was later to be my co-author in our Katrina book, “Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.”

We quickly found the way to refocus our series plan: Concentrate on the way that the risk from hurricanes in New Orleans has increased.

The Army Corps of Engineers had just concluded it would take six to 18 months to pump enough water out of the city after a catastrophic storm to allow the public to return. The American Red Cross had just finished a study indicating the number of dead from such a storm would be between 25,000 and 100,000. And one local emergency preparedness office had already stockpiled more than 20,000 body bags … just in case.

Then I heard a National Weather Service modeler brief Corps officials on an update of the agency’s storm surge model. And one of his model runs predicted that a Category 2 storm, with winds of 96 to 110 mph, would put water over levees in eastern New Orleans. Why? The new version took into account wetlands lost to erosion, high tides and new data showing that our levees had sunk, in some cases as much as two feet, from their authorized height.

We refocused our proposal to key on that – the public believed they were pretty much safe if the hurricane was a fast-moving Category 3 or smaller storm.

But a look at the floodwalls that lined our drainage canals, connected directly to the huge Lake Pontchartrain north of the city and vulnerable to overtopping, should have shown those who knew how to look at the risk we were facing.

To graphically show that risk, we hired a computer modeler who was also working with the Army Corps of Engineers in the design of future levees to conduct a model run, to show what would happen if Hurricane Georges, a 1998 Category 3 storm with winds of only 115 mph that hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast, had actually hit New Orleans.

The model showed that more than half the metro area would have been under four to eight feet of water.

Ironically, we also provided our readers with a visual depiction of what would turn out to be the biggest problem with our hurricane protection. A map showing that the complicated system of levees that had been built over the past 40 years – and was still not complete – was a system in name only.

We also explained the difficulties of evacuating those who did have transportation in advance of a storm. At the time, experts estimated it would take 72 to 84 hours to completely evacuate the city of New Orleans.

Emergency planners recognized that was too long: Seventy-two hours before Hurricane Andrew hit the Louisiana coast southwest of New Orleans in 1992, it was still six hours east of Miami and nobody knew where it would go.

Fortunately, in the time after our series ran, dramatic changes were made to the evacuation system that resulted in 1.2 million people successfully evacuating the New Orleans area in advance of Katrina, a fact that gets lost because of the 1,400 who died when they stayed behind – because of either a lack of transportation or their failure to believe the repeated warnings about Katrina.

So let’s fast forward to Saturday, Aug. 27. That day, we got a computer model of the potential storm surge effects of Katrina based on the latest National Hurricane Center track from Louisiana State University. It showed the potential for flooding very similar to what occurred during Hurricane Betsy, with much of eastern New Orleans, the lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish being inundated.

I was at my desk surrounded by the paper’s editors at 4 p.m. that day trying to figure out whether we would run our version of the model on the front page Sunday morning, a day before Katrina’s possible landfall, when my phone rang.

It was Max Mayfield, then director of the National Hurricane Center, and before I had a chance to ask a question, he asked me how high my building was, and what kind of wind it could withstand.

My editors said the color drained out of my face … and by the time the conversation ended, we all knew that map would be in our next day’s paper.

The map turned out to be extremely optimistic, and in Katrina’s aftermath, it quickly became clear that we, the Army Corps of Engineers and local, state and national planners had tragically underestimated our hurricane risk.

As we reported over the next year, the designs and construction of New Orleans levees were based on outdated science and engineering standards: Even a 1979 NOAA technical report that finally took into account the effects of surge accompanying 1969’s Hurricane Camille on Mississippi’s coast was not used in determining the height or strength requirements for the levees.

And even this report discounted the chance of a storm with Katrina’s huge size and the dramatic height of its storm surge.

In our 2002 series, we also didn’t delve beneath the tops of levees and levee walls when we questioned the Corp’s assumptions in their designs. Yes, we had correctly reported that many stretches of levee were as much as two feet too low. But we didn’t foresee widespread failures of engineered features, such as the failure of floodwalls along the 17th Street, London Avenue and Industrial canals.

When Katrina hit, however, we immediately dispatched a team of reporters out to figure out what happened.

They confirmed with photos that water was already up to rooftops in Lakeview, which we had already reported on the internet as being inundated with floodwaters because of the failure of the 17th Street Canal floodwall.

Unfortunately, the federal government wasn’t reading The Times-Picayune online that day, for it wasn’t until later that evening that FEMA officials were able to see the breach from the air, and not until the next day that officials in Washington recognized what the breach meant, that the entire city would flood.

Our reporters and photographers also documented rescues throughout the region, beginning in the early-morning hours and lasting through the next few days. On the Monday that Katrina hit, we worked out of our building just north of the Superdome, mostly in the dark, using an emergency electrical generator. By Tuesday morning, though, we were forced to evacuate, as water surrounded our building.

But while most of the staff headed to towns outside the flooded area, a number of our reporters and photographers remained in the city. There they documented the crowd gathered at the city’s convention center, which had not been planned for use as a shelter, even while FEMA officials in Washington still didn’t understand that building was a dozen blocks away from the Superdome, and that the people there didn’t have food or water.

And in the days that followed, our electronic editions were joined by paper versions printed at other newspapers for us. And all of this was occurring as our own staff was experiencing the same effects as the rest of the city. More than 40 percent of our staff lost their homes but continued to provide New Orleans-area readers, and the millions who read NOLA.com online, the latest information about what happened when the floodwalls failed, and in the months and years afterward, how the city recovered.

Mark Schleifstein

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