OK, you’ve heard all that went wrong with Hurricane Katrina. What about the good news?
Not even three weeks since Katrina blitzed southern Mississippi and flooded New Orleans, Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans has reopened to a reduced number of flights, and the port of New Orleans is back in operation. An upbeat New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin hopes that, within days, the good times will roll once again in the French Quarter.
Katrina is bound for the history books as one of the most destructive storms to hit the United States. A four-state southern swath of 90,000 square miles _ an area the size of the United Kingdom _ has been put under federal disaster declarations.
But the forecast of 10,000 or more deaths from Katrina did not come true. In fact, in terms of fatalities, Katrina may not ultimately rank as one of the deadliest hurricanes. Since 1492, 40 other hurricanes have claimed more lives _ over 1,100 _ than Katrina has to date, according to National Hurricane Center records.
In terms of cost, Katrina seems certain to claim the dubious title of most expensive storm in U.S. history, with Congress already allocating $62 billion in relief, and total estimates of damage yet to be completed. That distinction previously was held by Hurricane Andrew, which hit southeast Florida and Louisiana in 1992, causing $26.5 billion in damage.
Blame is being spread far and wide over the inadequate preparation before Katrina hit and an abysmal first response. This week, President Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco publicly acknowledged that things early on went very wrong.
But now, 18 days after the storm clouds left, it is becoming clear that many things have also gone right _ in some cases, remarkably so. Here are some:
THE FORECAST: The National Hurricane Center was spot on forecasting Katrina’s track five days in advance, giving the Gulf Coast ample early warning. After the hurricane roared across southern Florida with 80 mph winds Aug. 25, forecasters predicted it would strengthen in the Gulf of Mexico and turn north.
On Aug. 26, the Hurricane Center predicted the storm would hit an area between Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane _ the most powerful. Blanco declared a state of emergency that day. On Aug. 27, Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield telephoned Nagin in New Orleans to recommend a mandatory evacuation. Nagin agreed and ordered the city evacuated. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour issued similar orders for the Gulf Coast.
Katrina came ashore precisely in the forecasters’ bull’s-eye.
THE EVACUATION: Nagin says 80 percent of New Orleans residents complied with the evacuation order. That’s much better than the average rate of 60 percent, he said. Residents of coastal Mississippi and Alabama fled in similar proportions.
DEATHS: There were forecasts of tens of thousands of deaths in the city from drowning, as citizens fled advancing floods by climbing into their attics, where they were trapped and drowned. “Minimum, hundreds. Most likely thousands,” Nagin said after the city was flooded. But after house-to-house searches, the toll from Katrina so far is substantially less severe than the prediction.
Also remarkably safe has been the 24/7 effort by the National Guard and active-duty troops to fly in supplies and rescue the stranded and sick: 271 helicopters and 75 military planes flew more than 12,200 sorties, and rescued close to 10,000 people, without an accident.
DISEASE: Pronouncements from experts in the early days after Katrina struck warned that the “toxic soup” of floodwater in which New Orleans was marinating could spawn epidemics of disease in those exposed to human and animal waste, cadavers, chemicals and other pollutants.
The latest tests by environmental inspectors this week showed that the muck left behind is neither toxic nor any worse than the detritus that remains after any ordinary flood. In scattered sites, however, oil and chemical spills will have to be thoroughly scrubbed.
No signs of dire health woes have surfaced, and scientific studies concluded that the “witches’ brew” of water in New Orleans contained about the same composition of organisms found in any other flood. About 1,000 people living in shelters have come down with mild stomach illnesses, but many of those cases were traced to living in such close quarters. An outbreak of 11 cases of hepatitis A in Alabama has been pegged to the eating of oysters harvested before the hurricane.
While cautioning that disease outbreaks still could occur, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week said the only notable storm-related maladies being reported by doctors and hospitals are chain-saw injuries, snakebites and carbon-monoxide exposure from generators.
DEWATERING: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would take 80 days to pump out New Orleans. But that turned out to be a major overestimate. Helped by a lack of rainfall, most of what the military called the “dewatering” of the city has occurred about twice as fast as predicted. Now more than 50 percent dry, New Orleans is expected to be free from the floodwater by Oct. 8.
POSTAL DELIVERIES: Within two weeks of the disaster, the U.S. Postal Service says it was able to get mail to 80 percent of the post offices affected and reopened full service at 427 offices that shut down in the storm. More than 300,000 Social Security checks were given out to evacuees at special pickup points.
OIL: Industry experts and others warned that storm-battered rigs, pipelines and refineries would likely cause months of nationwide gasoline shortages and spiking prices as the oil patch struggled back on its feet.
But, outside of the hurricane-hit area, the only shortages that occurred came from panic buying by consumers in parts of the country reacting to rumors of dry pumps ahead. Prices indeed shot up, but began this week to fall.
So far, half of the refineries fully shut down by Katrina are back on line. Electricity has been restored to most refineries and all major pipelines have resumed operations. Four refineries _which account for just 5 percent of the country’s processing capacity _ could remain out of order for another three months, but normal oil and natural-gas operations and distribution are forecast to be in place by December, the U.S. Energy Department says.
PLANES, TRAINS AND BARGES: With estimates that it could take six months for the crucial Mississippi River port of New Orleans to be back in business, farmers upstream fretted that crops such as soybeans and corn would languish. Farm Bureau economists worried that farmers faced a financial disaster if their unsold harvest didn’t get to market and predicted shortages of Latin American coffee imports.
But on Wednesday, the Port of New Orleans reopened, albeit not at top strength. Estimates now peg the port to reach 80 percent of capacity within three months. Other ports in the region, such as the one in Pascagoula, Miss., are expected to be fully open by early October.
Similar good news is coming from the rails, where Norfolk Southern Corp. restored freight service to New Orleans on Wednesday and said repairs have been finished to interchange points with Western rail carriers. The New Orleans airport opened to limited service Tuesday, and is on track to handle 60 flights a day by next week.
POWER: As of Wednesday, electricity had been restored to 75 percent of New Orleans’ 1.1 million households. Fewer than 500,000 of the 4.5 million households region-wide remained in the dark.
FUTURE: Chicken coops were leveled and agricultural crops flattened, but South Delta rice farmers in Mississippi are finding rays of hope after the storm. All things considered, they’re looking at a decent harvest. Katrina actually helped, leaving behind good weather that dried out the fields.
(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com, and Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)