Popular Mechanics Takes on Katrina Myths

March 6th, 2006 9:51 AM

Last week’s Associated Press release of a video, taken just prior to Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in New Orleans last August, has generated a new round of second-guessing and finger pointing regarding who is to blame for the supposedly slow, poor response to this natural disaster. Falling under the fold was an in-depth cover story on this subject by an unlikely source, Popular Mechanics.

In its March issue, PM took on virtually all of the media myths and misnomers that were so drilled into the citizenry by press representatives that many have become part of the public psyche. Thankfully, its authors made it clear right in the first paragraph that they planned on pulling no punches:

“In the months since the storm, many of the first impressions conveyed by the media have turned out to be mistaken.”

How mistaken? Well, PM and its staff put together a list of seven myths concerning Katrina that have been purported by the media, and like a good mechanic, quickly isolated the flaws inherent in the press coverage while making much-needed repairs.

Myth #1: “'The aftermath of Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history.’—Aaron Broussard, president, Jefferson Parish, La., Meet the Press, NBC, Sept. 4, 2005”

For those that have forgotten, Broussard is the man that cried on Meet the Press the Sunday after Katrina hit, claiming that a co-worker’s mother died in New Orleans as a result of the delay in the rescue effort. Broussard’s claims were later thoroughly discredited. In addition, Broussard was responsible for dismissing all of the pump operators in Jefferson Parish before the storm arrived, and is in the middle of a lawsuit filed by parish residents that claim this decision was largely responsible for the flooding.

That said, PM didn’t agree with Broussard’s assertions regarding this matter either:

“Bumbling by top disaster-management officials fueled a perception of general inaction, one that was compounded by impassioned news anchors. In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest—and fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm’s landfall.”

Certainly, it seems hard to categorize 100,000 workers as an abandonment. Unlike many in the media that make such bold statements without verification, PM backed up its position with actual facts. How refreshing:

“Dozens of National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters flew rescue operations that first day—some just 2 hours after Katrina hit the coast. Hoistless Army helicopters improvised rescues, carefully hovering on rooftops to pick up survivors. On the ground, ‘guardsmen had to chop their way through, moving trees and recreating roadways,’ says Jack Harrison of the National Guard. By the end of the week, 50,000 National Guard troops in the Gulf Coast region had saved 17,000 people; 4000 Coast Guard personnel saved more than 33,000.”

As the proof is often in the pudding, PM bolstered its view on this myth with the following conclusion:

“While the press focused on FEMA’s shortcomings, this broad array of local, state and national responders pulled off an extraordinary success—especially given the huge area devastated by the storm. Computer simulations of a Katrina-strength hurricane had estimated a worst-case-scenario death toll of more than 60,000 people in Louisiana. The actual number was 1077 in that state.”

It’s amazing how quickly the press forgot their own highly publicized casualty estimates in the tens of thousands, and saw no victory in that number coming in 90 to 95 percent less than they had advertised.

Myth #2: “'This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.’—New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, press conference, Aug. 28, 2005”

Regardless of how this storm was being hyped at the time, we now know that Katrina’s wind-strength significantly diminished in the final hours as it approached New Orleans. As PM put it:

“Though many accounts portray Katrina as a storm of unprecedented magnitude, it was in fact a large, but otherwise typical, hurricane. On the 1-to-5 Saffir-Simpson scale, Katrina was a midlevel Category 3 hurricane at landfall. Its barometric pressure was 902 millibars (mb), the sixth lowest ever recorded, but higher than Wilma (882mb) and Rita (897mb), the storms that followed it. Katrina’s peak sustained wind speed at landfall 55 miles south of New Orleans was 125 mph; winds in the city barely reached hurricane strength.

“By contrast, when Hurricane Andrew struck the Florida coast in 1992, its sustained winds were measured at 142 mph. And meteorologists estimate that 1969’s Category 5 Hurricane Camille, which followed a path close to Katrina’s, packed winds as high as 200 mph.”

The reality is that had the levees held there would have been comparatively little damage to New Orleans as a result of this storm. However, in PM’s view, there is another issue raised by this disaster that has gone largely ignored:

“According to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, the Atlantic is in a cycle of heightened hurricane activity due to higher sea-surface temperatures and other factors. The cycle could last 40 years, during which time the United States can expect to be hit by dozens of Katrina-size storms. Policymakers-and coastal residents-need to start seeing hurricanes as routine weather events, not once-in-a-lifetime anomalies.” 

Myth #3: “'Perhaps not just human error was involved [in floodwall failures]. There may have been some malfeasance.’—Raymond Seed, civil engineering professor, UC, Berkeley, testifying before a Senate committee, Nov. 2, 2005”

There’s been a lot of second-guessing and finger pointing concerning the levee design, and who was responsible for their failure. According to PM, these were all built according to specifications:

“Most of the New Orleans floodwall failures occurred when water up to 25 ft. high overtopped the barriers, washing out their foundations. But three breached floodwalls-one in the 17th Street Canal and two in the London Avenue Canalshowed no signs of overtopping. Accusations of malfeasance were born after the Army Corps of Engineers released seismic data suggesting that the sheet-pile foundations supporting those floodwalls were 7 ft. shorter than called for in the designa possible cause for collapse. In December 2005, PM watched Corps engineers pull four key sections of the 17th Street Canal foundation out of the New Orleans mud. The sections were more than 23 ft. long-as per design specifications. ‘I had heard talk about improper building before the sheet-pile pull,’ the Corps’ Wayne Stroupe says. ‘But not much since.’”

Myth #4: “'They have people … been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.’—New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Sept. 6, 2005”

Some of the most pathetic and shameful reporting on Katrina dealt with the supposed violence occurring in both the streets and at the Superdome. As PM declared, almost all of these reports turned out to be similar to the rubbish that piled up around New Orleans:

"Both public officials and the press passed along lurid tales of post-Katrina mayhem: shootouts in the Superdome, bodies stacked in a convention center freezer, snipers firing on rescue helicopters. And those accounts appear to have affected rescue efforts as first responders shifted resources from saving lives to protecting rescuers."

In reality, although looting and other property crimes were widespread after the flooding on Monday, Aug. 29, almost none of the stories about violent crime turned out to be true:

"Col. Thomas Beron, the National Guard commander of Task Force Orleans, arrived at the Superdome on Aug. 29 and took command of 400 soldiers. He told PM that when the Dome’s main power failed around 5 am, ‘it became a hot, humid, miserable place. There was some pushing, people were irritable. There was one attempted rape that the New Orleans police stopped.’”

What were some of the other numbers?

“The only confirmed account of a weapon discharge occurred when Louisiana Guardsman Chris Watt was jumped by an assailant and, during the chaotic arrest, accidently shot himself in the leg with his own M-16.

“When the Superdome was finally cleared, six bodies were found—not the 200 speculated. Four people had died of natural causes; one was ruled a suicide, and another a drug overdose. Of the four bodies recovered at the convention center, three had died of natural causes; the fourth had sustained stab wounds.”

Some mayhem, huh? And how about the supposed anarchy in the streets, or snipers shooting at rescue operators?

“‘The vast majority of people [looting] were taking food and water to live,’ says Capt. Marlon Defillo, the New Orleans Police Department’s commander of public affairs. ‘There were no killings, not one murder.’ As for sniper fire: No bullet holes were found in the fuselage of any rescue helicopter.”


Myth #5: “‘The failure to evacuate was the tipping point for all the other things that … went wrong.’—Michael Brown, former FEMA director, Sept. 27, 2005”

This myth is particularly delicious given the press’s newfound adoration of Brown, even though their complaints about his performance in September got him fired. Regardless, when you look at the arithmetic and the facts, this really was a very successful evacuation. PM agreed:

“When Nagin issued his voluntary evacuation order, a contraflow plan that turned inbound interstate lanes into outbound lanes enabled 1.2 million people to leave New Orleans out of a metro population of 1.5 million. ‘The Corps estimated we would need 72 hours [to evacuate that many people],’ says Brian Wolshon, an LSU civil engineer. ‘Instead, it took 38 hours.’”

Another myth in this regard was that the only people that didn’t evacuate were those that couldn’t. Not so according to PM:

“Later investigations indicated that many who stayed did so by choice. ‘Most people had transportation,’ says Col. Joe Spraggins, director of emergency management in Harrison County, Ala. ‘Many didn’t want to leave.’ Tragic exceptions: hospital patients and nursing home residents.”

Myth #6: “‘We will rebuild [the Gulf Coast] bigger and better than ever.’—Haley Barbour, Miss. Gov., The Associated press, Sept. 3, 2005”

There’s been much discussion in the media concerning what should be done with New Orleans after its destruction. PM offered a bold view in this regard. Its premise was that the current National Flood Insurance Program rewards people who live in coastal areas subject to floods, with some making multiple claims for very large sums of money:

“Just 1 to 2 percent of claims were from ‘repetitive-loss properties’-those suffering damage at least twice in a 10-year period. Yet, those 112,000 properties generated a remarkable 40 percent of the losses-$5.6 billion. One homeowner in Houston filed 16 claims in 18 years, receiving payments totaling $806,000 for a building valued at $114,000.

“Just as significantly, the five Gulf Coast states accounted for half the total of repetitive-loss costs nationwide. Taxpayers across the country are paying for a minute number of people to rebuild time and time again in the path of hurricanes.”

By contrast, the government doesn’t view tornado or earthquake damage with anywhere near as broad a scope:

“Folks in Tornado Alley and along the San Andreas fault don’t get federally backed insurance, so why should taxpayers subsidize coastal homes, many of them vacation properties?”

Great question. So, what’s the answer that PM offered which few media would have the guts to espouse?

“Before we start rebuilding ‘bigger and better,’ Congress should reform the flood insurance program. A good start: Structure premiums so the program is actuarially sound and clamps down on repetitive claims.”

Great idea, folks. Let’s see that one get through a contentious Congress.

Myth #7: “‘You have a major energy network that is down … We could run out of gasoline or diesel or jet fuel in the next two weeks here.’—Roger Diwan, managing director, Oil Markets Group, PFC Energy, Business Week, Sept. 1, 2005”

Probably not unintentionally, PM saved the best myth for last. Some of the worst media reporting surrounding this hurricane was directly related to energy prices. In fact, we quickly heard how this was going to cause massive job cuts around the country, lead to a recession, send gasoline to $5 per gallon, and kill the Christmas shopping season.

Much like most economic predictions from the media, none of these prognostications materialized. And, according to PM, the media were all wet regarding how much damage was done to the nation’s energy complex:

“Initially, the pictures from the gulf looked bleak: oil rigs washed up along the coast, production platforms wrecked. In truth, Katrina inflicted minimal damage to the offshore energy infrastructure. Only 86 of the gulf’s 4000 drilling rigs and platforms were damaged or destroyed, and most of those were older, fixed platforms atop unproductive wells.”

Beyond this, the subsequent storms of Rita and Wilma had a larger impact on our energy complex than Katrina, though neither garnered the same media attention. However, even with all this damage, things were repaired much quicker than expected – especially by the media that never see any good in anything:

“But recovery came more quickly than many experts predicted. By the end of the year, overall production was down just 8 percent, and only three refineries were still off line. ‘This is by far the worst we’ve ever seen,’ says Ed Murphy, who is a refinery expert at the American Petroleum Institute. ‘That we’ve recovered so quickly is really quite extraordinary.’”

Not surprisingly, the media didn’t see it that way, and continued to talk about Katrina-related higher fuel prices negatively impacting the economy right through the end of last year.

As a result, like virtually no members of the antique media, PM adroitly demonstrated just how wrong the press were about this horrible disaster, and continue to be. Leave it to a group of mechanics to identify where that awful clanging sound was coming from…in this case, America’s pressrooms.  

(Special thanks go to NewsBusters reader "Arizona RE Appraiser" for bringing this article to my attention.)