Five years ago: 8/29/2005

Today we celebrate life in, and the continuing existence of, that incomparably wonderful place, the city of New Orleans.

Five years ago today, a fearsome hurricane on the Mississippi Gulf Coast but what should have been a run-of-the-mill hurricane of low-to-moderate strength in the city of New Orleans, came ashore. By the time the force of the hurricane reached the city the winds were only Category 2 and even down to a Category 1. There was some damage and lots of rain, but the city itself weathered the hurricane relatively well. The initial reaction was that “we dodged a bullet.”

Then the levee and floodwall system, designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, failed.

Here’s how it happened, demonstrated via an animated graphic from the Times-Picayune.

A very concise description of how fast things happened once the floodwalls and levees failed comes from the excellent Twitter feed of Crystal Kile, aka DJ Poptart at WTUL in New Orleans:

With all of the breaches, some neighborhoods flooded to the rooftops in minutes.

Even where the flooding was slower, further from the sites of the breaches, the water rose approximately 0.3 m (1 ft) every 10 minutes.

The lake level equalized with the floodwaters at midday on September 1, 2005. [That’s three days later.]

The failure of the levees and the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, represent the first time in American history that engineering failure has brought about the destruction or near-destruction of a major U.S. city.

There are five-years-later posts and articles all over the internets — there’s not a lot I can add. I wasn’t there until five weeks later, but I certainly had my own experiences with my family’s home. There are a couple hundred thousand other stories just like it (and, on the five-year anniversary, a hundred times more than that — that’s 20,000,000 — in Pakistan at the moment, which I simply cannot get my head around). Just look around and you’ll find plenty. But I do want to point you in a couple of directions.

First off, continuing to run on HBO this weekend is Spike Lee’s excellent documentary “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”, a sequel to the one he did four years ago in the immediate aftermath of the Federal Flood, “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.”

Then tomorrow is the one-night-only theatrical premiere of Harry Shearer’s long-awaited documentary film “The Big Uneasy,” which we will not miss.

Harry’s film will pull no punches, spelling out the reasons for the disaster (man-made, not natural as it was on the Mississippi Gulf coast), talking to New Orleans residents and whistle-blowers from the Corps of Engineers. As one prominent scientist said, had the floodwall and levee system worked as it was supposed to, the worst that Hurricane Katrina would have inflicted on New Orleans was “wet ankles.”

The odd tidbit of news about “The Big Uneasy” this weekend is that Harry, a longtime contributer to National Public Radio, submitted an ad to NPR for the film, which NPR subsequently rejected. The very brief ad stated that the movie was about “why New Orleans flooded.” According to NPR, “the language violated FCC guidelines.” However, they would allow the ad to say the movie was about “New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.” Harry said, “The bickering went on for days.” I would like to see an explicit explanation of exactly how that language violated FCC guidelines.

Harry calls shenanigans on the explanation as well. “The FCC won’t let you say what your movie is about?” The NPR lawyers declined to offer any further explanation. Perhaps it’s because they’re Nice Polite Republicans?

“The Big Uneasy” plays in theatres tomorrow night only, August 30, in these theatres nationwide and at the following theatres in the Los Angeles area:

The Bridge 18, 6081 Center Dr, LA
The Grove 14, 189 The Grove Dr, LA
The Americana 18, 322 Americana Way, Glendale
The Culver Stadium 12, 9500 Culver Blvd, Culver City
Foothill Cinema 10, 854 E Alosta, Azusa
Agoura Hills 8, 29045 Agoura Hills Dr, Agoura Hills

Call for showtimes.

New Orleans has come a long way in five years, but still has a long way to go.


17 Responses to “Five years ago: 8/29/2005”

  1. Amy said:

    Aug 29, 10 at 7:35 pm

    Thanks Chuck – just bought a ticket to Harry’s movie – wouldn’t have known it was coming to my neighborhood if you hadn’t shared the news

    long live NOLA,


  2. Tiare said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 1:30 am

    I`ll have to wait until its out on DVD which i hope will be soon and same with da creek. You know,despite all their attempts over the years and which still goes on to sweep the truth under the rug just won`t work and i see a change a coming even though very slowly but still – surely.

  3. Demetri said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 6:38 am

    “Five years ago today, a run-of-the-mill hurricane of low-to-moderate strength . . .”

    A lot of people in Alabama and Mississippi would disagree with that.

    “Perhaps it’s because they’re Nice Polite Republicans?”

    Are you serious?

  4. Christy said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 9:31 am

    Going to the showing in Agoura Hills….

  5. Chuck said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 10:45 am

    The natural disaster that struck the Mississippi Gulf coast is another beast entirely from the man-made disaster that struck New Orleans, which is what we’re talking about here. Katrina was Category 3 on approach and at landfall, and that’s what the MS/AL coast took. The effects of the hurricane itself on the city were relatively mild in comparison to what happened when the floodwalls and levees failed — the National Hurricane Center calculated that New Orleans experienced winds of Category 1 or 2 strength.

    Do we still have to keep pointing this out after five years?

  6. Demetri said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 1:08 pm

    Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane. That’s not a storm of “low-to-moderate strength.” If you want to note that New Orleans didn’t get much wind, have at it, but you’re mistaken to characterize Katrina as anything other than a very strong hurricane.

  7. Tiare said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 1:52 pm

    I have seen enough pictures from a friend living in Slidell (or rather used to) of what Katrina did to that area for example, but the point of the discussion here is the levee failures.

    The Mississippi Gulf coast area was totally devastated by Katrina in what we call a natural disaster but not New Orleans.

    The point here is to get it clear to everybody that the levee failures was man-made and could have been avoided.This is a fact that has been proven and the flooding was caused by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who also were found responsible for the New Orleans flooding by a federal judge in January, 2008.

    This is also a fact that continually is changed into a lie everywhere in the media both nationally and internationally – and that`s the point of the movie and this whole discussion.

    Do you know that it has taken me 5 years to convince some people here about that? now finally they have got it, but it needs to be spoken of until everybody gets it.

    It has been 5 years and no 8/29 Investigation has yet been done.Its just now recently that a senior member of the Louisiana Governor’s office has asked Congress to include the 8/29 Investigation Act in the 2010 Water Resources Development Act.Why this is so important is because if this shall not happen again, the cause of the levee failures has to be known in order to adequately imporove them which sadly hasn´t yet been done.

    There´s a huge difference between a city being flooded by a storm or by a man made levee failure. I´m looking forward to the day when this discussion aint dere no more.

  8. Chuck said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 2:30 pm

    Demetri, you’re aware that hurricanes change in strength, aren’t you? Katrina was a Category 5 at one point over water, and had it been that strength at landfall it would have completely destroyed a wide swath around anywhere it hit. The fact is that Katrina’s winds were Category 3 on approach to the Gulf coast and at landfall, and at Category 1 and 2 strength when it reached New Orleans . The hurricane that hit Mississippi was Category 3; the one that reached New Orleans was not — the former hurricane wreaked havoc on the Mississippi coast, and the latter should have given New Orleanians missing shingles and “wet ankles.” If you want to argue about it, argue with the National Hurricane Center, not me. I think you’re kind of missing the point.

  9. Demetri said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 3:19 pm

    People in Shreveport probably didn’t get much wind either but that doesn’t make Katrina a weak hurricane. I understand your point but you’re overstating it.

  10. Tiare said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 4:10 pm

    If the discussion is about that the levee failure was man made it cannot be enough stated, not until everybody gets it.And now i think a cocktail is in order..

  11. dws said:

    Aug 30, 10 at 8:00 pm

    Correct, Tiare. It could have been avoided by not building below sea level. And I think everybody gets it now, the floodwall broke. Pretending otherwise is mendacious.

  12. mardiclaw said:

    Aug 31, 10 at 12:40 am

    katrina was felt all the way up to birmingham, where my girlfriends tree came down in her yard. katrina was HUGE… even gustav, was felt in birmingham.

    building below sea level? hmmmm. maybe if we didn’t invest so much in OIL, we wouldn’t have had these problems. also, the original city didn’t flood… (those wacky french, knew how to build… its called the french quarter)

    and putting up all those levee’s? to try and control the mississippi? well, that didn’t help either, making the river carve itself into deeper and deeper channels, and stopping the flooding that made those wetlands our first defense against storms…

    New Orleans is one of the largest ports, and had she been shut down? I think middle america would starve. New Orleans is a very very important part of the US. without her? what a bland world this would be…

    god bless the modern day atlantis, and her people. For THEY are the ones, who breathed life back into her. the people.

  13. Chuck said:

    Aug 31, 10 at 3:18 am

    Can we please put this “below sea level” thing to rest forever?

    Fact: 50% of New Orleans is at or above sea level. All of New Orleans could have been raised to 3 feet above sea level, and the city would have gotten the same amount of water from the 4 major and 24 other seawall and levee breaches that flooded 80% of the city.

    Fact: Pretty much every deltaic coastal sea port on this planet is at or below sea level. One-third of the entire nation of The Netherlands is below sea level. Miami, New York, Boston and Long Beach, to name but four, have portions that are below sea level. Washington, D.C. is at sea level at its lowest elevation, the same elevation at which places in New Orleans flooded.

    Fact: If a hurricane were to hit one of those cities, or any coastal city even at sea level elevation, there would still be flooding because of storm surges.

    Nice post, MardiClaw. Addendum: New Orleans is indeed one of the largest ports, and 30% of the energy sources that come into this country come in through that port. Shut that down and some people in the north are going to get mighty cold.

  14. Tiare said:

    Aug 31, 10 at 11:28 am

    “Without her? what a bland world this would be…”

    – Agree 10000%

    “Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.”
    -Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces

    And yes, its true, so many other cities are below sea level..its all about building the levess right. That`s what they do in Holland.

  15. Tiare said:

    Aug 31, 10 at 1:58 pm

    Well…a bit simplified..

  16. Michael P said:

    Aug 31, 10 at 2:56 pm

    Chuck, I understand the reaction against calling Katrina a “run of the mill hurricane of low to moderate strength.” Forget the Saffir-Simpson scale, which pretty much everybody agrees is way too simplistic since it only focuses on wind. Katrina may have been “only” a Cat 3 on landfall, but it brought with it the biggest storm surge ever recorded in the US, and one of the biggest ever recorded in the world. It was a water event, not a wind event. Based on the destruction in Bucktown, there was a bigger storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain than for any storm since at least 1859 (year that Bruning’s opened). Yes, the world needs to be reminded every day that the flooding in the heart of the city west of the Industrial Canal would not have happened if the levee walls hadn’t failed without being overtopped, but I don’t think it helps the cause to minimize the size/power of that awful storm. I’m a weather geek who has obsessed about tropical cyclones all over the world for the past 20 years, and I’ve never seen a storm as massive and truly horrifying as Katrina was just before landfall.

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