Popular Mechanics Takes on Katrina Myths

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.'