The Corner

“Three Deadly Waves”

One of the best Katrina over-views I’ve seen is on the front page of today’s WSJ (subscription only). It reports how the flooding and the hurricane weren’t separate events, as we’ve heard over and over, but the catastrophic flooding began with landfall. Here’s the beginning:

On Aug. 29, as Hurricane Katrina brought chaos to this city, three massive waves of water poured largely unseen into the eastern section of town and neighboring St. Bernard Parish.

One surged west, off a churning Lake Borgne. Another came across from Lake Pontchartrain in the north. That sent a steel barge ramming through the Industrial Canal, a major shipping artery that cuts north to south through the city, possibly scything a breach that became 500 feet long, letting waters pour into nearby neighborhoods.

The waves inundated the mostly working-class eastern districts, home to 160,000 people. In some places, the water rose as fast as a foot per minute, survivors say.

Until now, the world’s attention has focused on the levee system protecting the city’s central districts, and on the near-anarchy in the storm’s aftermath. But a complete reckoning of the damage and death toll will likely focus on an entirely different event, hitherto overlooked: the devastating swamping of the eastern sections of New Orleans, hours before the central flooding began. The final tallying of the dead across the city will be substantially dictated by how many residents of these neighborhoods got out alive.

The piece has amazing personal accounts. Here is part of one–note the six-foot waves in the street:

In Meraux, Mr. Mullet looked out the window again, about an hour after telling his friend that a few inches of water had collected. He saw his Jeep floating down the street. Mr. Mullet, a large man with a bulky frame, opened the front door. Four feet of water rushed into the home. He turned to his son John, 25, and yelled: “Get out!”

The two men rushed out the side door and hurried to John’s small skiff parked beside the house. Within five minutes, water was at the eaves of the house, Mr. Mullet recalls. They struggled to control the boat as powerful currents driven by winds over 100 miles per hour threatened to carry them down the street.

Meraux Lane, the closest street to the marsh leading to Lake Borgne, had become a sea with 6-foot waves. Unable to control the boat, the Mullets grabbed on to a neighbor’s roof and held on. The rain felt like tiny bullets. Roy Mullet gripped the roof so tightly that he began to bleed from a long abrasion on one finger. “All I kept thinking about was my son. Several times I looked at him and thought we were goners,” Mr. Mullet said later.

And it questions whether the levees were really capable of handling even a Cat 2 or 3:

The levees along the Industrial Canal’s eastern side are supposed to stand at a height of 15 feet, according to the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Joseph Suhayda, a retired Louisiana State University coastal oceanographer, suspects the levees aren’t actually that tall, partly due to sinking of the land beneath them. Mr. Suhayda now consults for a maker of flood-protection barriers. If he’s right, that would mean the levees weren’t high enough to handle even a Category 2 or 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 4.

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