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Why The Great Flood Is Not Katrina

A view from a New Orleanian

I have described the Great Flood as “Katrina.2” to others, because that’s the only comparison available to describe the scope of the disaster. But a New Orleans friend and reader of this blog writes to say, “Er, no.” I post this with his permission:

Ways that B.R. area flooding is worse:

No warning. I always say I’d rather live on the Gulf coast than in tornado or earthquake country.  We’ll usually get four or five days of warning about a storm’s path.  We can evacuate if there’s a flood risk, or we can shelter in place if we’re on higher ground.  Evacuating?  Take a box of your most valuable stuff with you – family photos and important papers – and grab the checkbook, credit cards, and some cash from an ATM.  Staying?  Buy jugs of drinking water, food, batteries, ice, gasoline, fill the tub with water for bathing and flushing the toilet, raise stuff off of the floor in the lowest rooms, etc.  Apart from Katrina, my 50-odd years in the Great State have not been badly affected by hurricanes.  Before 2005, they were even kind of fun. But in BR, people were swamped without much notice.  There were flash flood warnings, but frankly, the weather service gives those about once a week in the summertime – there are some crying wolf issues here.  Not only was there no opportunity for people to grab their wedding pictures, a lot of folks left barefoot and in pajamas.  That was also true for people where the federally designed levees broke in New Orleans, but that was for a major hurricane, not some heavy rain that freakishly refused to dissipate or move along.

No flood insurance.  In N.O., mortgage lenders require flood insurance in most places, and always have.  Even before Katrina, even on the relatively high ground in the city, we knew that there was a risk of some flooding from once-in-a-lifetime hurricanes or from rainstorms that might occur once every 10 years.  No one thought the feds’ levees would collapse, but ordinary flood insurance covered the extraordinary damage.  But the BR flood was a once-in-a-thousand-year probability.  Even for the risk-averse, those odds are long enough that it is a rational option to decline flood insurance.  Times are going to be very tough for homeowners.  Grants and SBA loans are very helpful, but they’re as bureaucratic as you’d imagine.

No name.  I don’t know what to call this nameless event.  It’s hard to focus the nation’s attention on something like “Flooding in Louisiana,” which sounds like “Heat in Arizona.”  Rainstorms don’t have names.  If you’re in a major media market, they make one up – “Polar Vortex” or “Snowmageddon.”

How B.R. and Katrina are exactly the same:

Floodwater in your house is floodwater in your house.  Almost anything you own will be destroyed if it is submerged in flood waters for more than a few minutes.  In a one-story house, you lose everything below the water line.  This includes the walls themselves and maybe your electrical wiring, too.  In some ways, there’s not much difference between six inches of water and seven feet of water.  You’ve lost everything, you’ll be pulling out carpet, drywall, insulation, furniture.  (You’d be surprised how many bookcases and other sturdy-looking pieces of furniture are made of particleboard that will disintegrate if the very bottom gets wet.  The furniture sort of crumbles, so all that stuff you think is safe on high shelves can end up in the water, too.)

Ways that Katrina was worse, in ways that are hard to get across:

Body count.  There are about a dozen tragically lost in the B.R. area, and for those families there’s no difference if the total number of dead is one or 1800+.  But there is something different when there are 1800+ dead, as with Katrina.  It’s not just a different magnitude, but a different kind.

Drainage.  There is still floodwater in many places around B.R. now, but I’ve been seeing Facebook photos of friends’ homes that have been drained and gutted already.  Some are gutted to the ceilings, but for others, the water was only a few feet deep.  Those folks were able to remove sheetrock and insulation up to the point where the materials are dry.  They’re ready to make repairs now.

In New Orleans, the floodwater sat for a month in some areas, trapped in by the levees that couldn’t keep it out.  Even in places where the water drained within a few days, the houses sat unopened for weeks before the owners could come back.  (It was something like martial law here, and roads into town were shut off for a long time.)  The mold comes within a few days to the wet areas.  And soon, everything is a wet area as water wicks its way up the insulation and drywall, and condenses on the ceiling every night.  Even the things that do not get flooded are destroyed by mold.

The smell of death.  In New Orleans, there was no electricity in most places for a month, and owners were hundreds of miles away, so they could not come in and start cleaning.  Where roads were not flooded, the cops or military had them closed so you couldn’t get home if you wanted to.  There was no electricity anywhere in the city or suburbs for several weeks.  You cannot imagine the smell of a single residential refrigerator after its contents have stewed at 90 degrees for a month.  (Hint: the shrink-wrapped pieces of chicken and beef and fish in your freezer are just dead chickens and dead cows and dead fish.  You’ll never forget that smell.)  One famous restaurant’s freezer made an entire city block in the French Quarter smell like dead bodies for a month.  You cannot imagine the smell of 300,000 refrigerators full of rotten animal meat, and you can’t shake the knowledge that some of the smell, in some parts of town, is not coming from refrigerators.

The scope.  This is what no one in the Northeast understood after Superstorm Sandy.  In New York and New Jersey, waterfront areas were devastated, just like in Louisiana and Mississippi.  But after Sandy, some streets a block or two uphill from the water were undamaged.  When it came time to rebuild, the Home Depots and Lowe’s and local hardware stores were open, with electricity and employees and material to sell.  Baton Rouge will be similarly situated – some of the home improvement stores were flooded, but others will be open.  It’s not going to be a picnic, but it is possible to start rebuilding today for some people.

Katrina wiped all of that out in the New Orleans area.  The nearest home improvement store was probably 90 miles away in Baton Rouge.  The local Ace Hardware had no power for a month, and no suppliers of materials.  You want gasoline for a generator?  Drive 90 miles and hope the power’s on at the gas station, and hope the gas has not been sold out like it was the last time you drove that far for gas.  You want an extension cord?  90 miles.  Groceries?  A shower?  Garbage bags?  Sorry, 90 miles.

And this is going not going to sound like much with all the death and destruction, but there was no normalcy to life.

Nothing was normal after Katrina, not a single neighborhood.  In New Orleans, there was no power downtown for about three weeks, even on the high ground.  The tap water was not drinkable for over a month anywhere in town.  You could not get a meal, or a cup of coffee, or a cold drink for months and months.  There was nowhere to escape the effect of the storm.  We didn’t have regular mail service for six months in the areas that were NOT flooded.  Roads were opened, but UPS and FedEx did not deliver to most areas for at least as long – so forget about sourcing anything and having it shipped.  Every minute of every day just wore you down, because everything was difficult.

By contrast, last Monday, I had a meeting scheduled in downtown Baton Rouge, as waters were still rising in parts of the city.  The meeting was cancelled because two of us could not get there, because our respective roads to Baton Rouge were closed.  Baton Rouge was an island.  But the downtown office where the meeting was to be held?  It was open.  Business as usual for people who could get there.  If you wanted a sandwich or a hot meal or a cup of coffee, you could walk to your favorite place and get one.

Of course, that’s not the case in the flooded areas, and I don’t want to minimize the inundation of entire towns like Denham Springs.  But you cannot underestimate the restorative value of being able to do something, anything, that’s normal.  Like going and grabbing a po-boy for lunch, where you can sit in the air conditioning and recover a bit.  Or you, sitting in a functional apartment with utilities.

Anyway, I ramble.  It’s weird how I get flashbacks of this stuff, when I was not in the city during the storm, did not lose everything, and generally made out extremely well.  I can’t imagine how people like my parents feel when they think about the storm, with my mom evacuating TO New Orleans and riding the storm out a block from the Convention Center, living in a B.R. apartment for months, and then going home to deal with the effect of water that got halfway up the walls on the second floor, no electricity for over six months, and every lifelong neighbor and family member relocated an hour away.

I don’t want to seem insensitive, or like I’ve had it worse than people in your neck of the woods.  I surely have not.  And my parents and I have resources that most people don’t in Livingston Parish.  But when I hear “this is as bad as Katrina,” I have a little trouble, on behalf of N.O.

When I wrote to ask his permission to publish this, he responded yes, but added:

I want to be clear about a couple of things. One, it’s not meant to be a contest over whose disaster is worse. That’s not my intent at all, although it is so early in the process I think that might be what it sounds like. I know from experience that any kind of comparison is going to come off as an offense to the victims who are struggling from minute to minute right now.

Two, I think my point is that they should count their blessings not to be in the condition New Orleans was in after Katrina. Katrina was truly an existential threat to the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas. But there’s no question that the areas flooded in and around Baton Rouge are going to rebuild.

Meanwhile, my wife reviewed what I wrote to see if it was offensive. She reminded me that every time we ate food outside for six months after Katrina, the food would be surrounded by “coffin flies.” I’ve never seen those before or since, but they were absolutely everywhere after Katrina. There was just so much rotting stuff for them to eat.

And it’s hard to explain how dead all of nature was around here, too. The trees had been stripped of their leaves, and there were no birds anywhere in the city. Where we usually have songbirds, tropical birds, wildlife sounds of all kinds, there was only silence. The trees finally resprouted in October or November, only for the leaves to turn brown almost immediately. But instead of falling off of the trees like in a normal year, all of the dead brown leaves stayed attached to the trees until the following spring, when green growth finally came back. It’s like the whole city was a haunted house set for almost a year.

Comparing anything to Katrina is like comparing anything to 9/11.

I think this is a bad time of year for me to talk about this stuff. The 11th anniversary of Katrina is in a few days.

You know, I was living in Dallas during Katrina, and my family, who lives north of Baton Rouge, was not affected. All my understanding of Katrina was from the media; I didn’t actually visit New Orleans until two years or more after the storm.

Reading the details in this e-mail, and knowing how terrible the destruction in the Baton Rouge area is, leaves me slack-jawed to consider the horror of Katrina. This poor state.