Monday, August 28, 2006

One Year After Katrina, Can America Cope With Another Superhurricane?

As Ernesto Lashes East Coast, John Batters Mexico's West Coast and a Supertyphoon Wipes Out Wake Island, Confidence That the Federal Government Will 'Get It Right' Next Time is Sorely Lacking

(Updated 5:30 a.m. EDT Friday, September 1, 2006)

By Skeeter Sanders

You cannot tune in to The Weather Channel this week and not get bombarded with programs marking the one-year anniversary of the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history. Nor can you escape its simultaneous wall-to-wall coverage of Tropical Storm Ernesto.

If that isn't enough, there's also Hurricane John, now lashing the western Mexican coast and posing a potential threat to California. And a western Pacific island made famous during World War II was completely wiped out Thursday by Supertyphoon Ioke.

It's impossible for Americans to not be overly hurricane-conscious a year after residents of the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Florida, saw their world literally turned upside-down by Superhurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- especially when another superhurricane could bear down on them at any time between now and the end of the 2006 hurricane season in November.

The next superhurricane could bear the name Florence. Or Gordon. Or Helene. It could even be a monster of biblical proportions named Isaac (These are some of the upcoming names on this year's Atlantic hurricane list).

On the other hand, the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season could prove to be a bust. There's just no way to know for sure until it happens. One thing is certain: Nobody is going to be complacent about Ernesto or any other storm. Not after what happened last year.

Ernesto Blows Into Carolinas After Drenching Florida With Heavy Rain

Ernesto made landfall on the southern North Carolina coast late Thursday night, coming ashore with heavy rains but sustained winds that fell just short of hurricane levels.

The storm's official arrival near Long Beach in Brunswick County came near the end of a long day of rain in the eastern half of North Carolina. Ernesto's leading edge dumped more than eight inches of rain on the Wilmington area — a record for August 31, according to the National Weather Service.

That sparked fears that even in a state that has seen widespread drought this summer, the rain might be too much of a good thing. "We need some rain around here — just not all at once," said Jean Evans, a convenience store worker on North Carolina's Holden Beach.

Ernesto's center made landfall at 11:30 p.m. EDT, with sustained winds near 70 miles per hour -- four miles per hour short of hurricane strength. The storm's tropical-force winds extended up to 145 miles from the center, mainly to the east.

Its northern bands had already drenched the eastern counties of the Carolinas and Virginia in midafternoon, prompting dozens of flood, tornado and storm warnings and watches.

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine declared a state of emergency Thursday and forecasters issued a hurricane watch from the South Santee River in South Carolina to Cape Lookout, about 50 miles east of Jacksonville, as the storm approached.

Just two days earlier, Ernesto had weakened to a tropical depression before coming ashore in southern Florida after failing to gain strength in the Florida Straits.

There were no reports Tuesday of serious damage in Florida. Police said a woman died in a car crash on a rain-slicked Miami street as Ernesto came ashore, local media reported. Authorities, while voicing words of caution about the need for storm preparations, signaled that they were not expecting much damage from the storm.

Ernesto's failure to gain strength in the Florida Straits surprised forecasters, in sharp contrast to the shock and near-panic triggered by the incredibly rapid intensification of Superhurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in the same area last year.

Hurricane John Still Threatens Mexico -- and Possibly Southern California

Hundreds of foreign tourists raced to escape a luxury beach resort in Mexico on Thursday as Hurricane John took aim at the Baja California peninsula and rescuers rushed residents into shelters.

Vacationers in the Cabos San Lucas resort, popular with American tourists and famed for its beaches and Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, hastily grabbed flights to safety before the storm hit the region in the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning.

"I've messed enough with hurricanes," said Curtis Bickers, who was going to get married in Cabos San Lucas, but abandoned the plans as John barreled in from the Pacific. "I'm not going to take any chances whatsoever."

The 30-year-old lawyer now plans to tie the knot in his hometown of Houston, where he was evacuated a year ago when Superhurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.

The NHC downgraded John to a Category 2 hurricane on Thursday afternoon, but said it still packed sustained winds of 105 mph. Its strength was unlikely to change before it hits Baja California Friday afternoon.

John had strengthened into a dangerous Category 4 storm Wednesday night, with maximum sustained winds of 135 mph and stronger gusts capable of ripping roofs off buildings and causing storm surges of up to 18 feet above normal.

John does not pose an immediate threat to the United States, but forecasters cannot rule out the possibility of the storm threatening southern California if it continues to hug the coast instead of moving westward out to sea, as most eastern Pacific hurricanes do.

The last time a hurricane struck California was in 1858, when a storm that by today's standards was a Category 1 hurricane slammed into San Diego.

Supertyphoon Ioke Wipes Out Wake Island

In the western Pacific, Supertyphoon Ioke literally ripped every building off tiny Wake Island Thursday with winds up to 190 mph -- the equivalent of an F4 tornado -- and drowned the island with 40-foot waves, according to reports from the Voice of America and Fox News Channel.

Forecasters at the National Pacific Storm Center in Honolulu, monitoring the 2.5-square-mile atoll's wind and temperature gauges, said the instruments ceased functioning after they recorded sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and gusts of up to 190 mph.

Lead forecaster Jeff Powell expected Ioke to submerge Wake Island, famous as the scene of a major World War II naval battle and a U.S. military base ever since. "[It will] destroy everything on it that is not made of concrete," he said.

The Air Force evacuated the island's 188 residents -- all of them either U.S. military personnel, defense department civilians or military contractors -- to Hawaii on Monday, and was planning to send planes to assess the damage from Ioke, the first recorded Category 5 supertyphoon in the Central Pacific and the strongest storm in that region in at least a dozen years.

Meanwhile, a new Pacific hurricane -- Kristy -- churned about 600 miles west of Mexico Thursday and was moving west-northwest, a Category 1 packing sustained winds of 75 mph. It posed no immediate threat to any land mass.

Warm Ocean Water Is Gasoline to Tropical Cyclones

We've known for years that hurricanes, typhoons and other tropical cyclones are stronger over water than they are over land. But if we've learned anything from last year's devastating hurricane season, it's that the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean are to hurricanes what gasoline is to cars. The warmer the water, the more powerful the storm.

Last year at this time, water temperatures in the Gulf exceeded 80 degrees Fahrenheit -- reaching a record 91 degrees in the Florida Strait at the time of Superhurricane Wilma, which at its peak became the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record, with maximum sustained winds clocked at 185 miles per hour and gusts of more than 200 miles per hour.

Both Katrina and especially Wilma stunned forecasters with the incredible speed in which they grew into Category 5 monsters on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity -- with Wilma setting a world record by intensifying from a Category 1 to a Category 5 in less than 36 hours.

This season, Gulf water temperatures are again averaging in the upper 80s -- with the waters near Pensacola, Florida over 90 degrees. Had Ernesto followed Katrina's path and moved into the central Gulf, it could easily have intensified into at least a Category 4 hurricane (135-155 mph winds), if not a Katrina-sized Category 5 (155 mph or greater).

Had Katrina slammed head-on into New Orleans at Ioke's F4-tornado-like intensity, the city, like Wake Island, would have literally been wiped off the face of the Earth. Not one structure -- not even the mighty Superdome -- would have been left standing.

Ernesto Casts a Shadow Over Katrina Observances

Although Ernesto proved to be a wimp compared to Katrina and Wilma and would go nowhere near the Gulf Coast, it nonetheless cast a shadow over events marking the anniversary of Katrina's assault on the Gulf Coast region.

The anniversary was marked Tuesday with a moment of silence, wreath-layings, the tolling of church bells and, in true New Orleans fashion, a wailing jazz funeral through the potholed streets for the victims of Katrina.

Jazz musicians marched ahead of a horse-drawn hearse, a symbol of the city's watery death. They played a dirge for the more than 1,800 people killed when Katrina came ashore. But the ensemble soon exploded into a joyful rhythm, the marchers opening colorful parasols and hoisting them toward the hot sun as they danced the city back to life.

Residents held vigils in pockmarked neighborhoods choked with weeds, in church pews and in gutted community centers. They rang bells to mark the collapse of the city's biggest levee and laid wreaths at the site of each successive break in the cement structure protecting the city.

They bowed their heads and closed their eyes in prayer, both for those no longer here and for the city's rebirth.

Mayor Ray Nagin summed up the city's mood at a gathering the previous day in the Lower Ninth Ward, where officials, including Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, dedicated a monument to Katrina victims.

"Ernesto got to go somewhere else," Nagin told the crowd. "We done had our time last year."

Blanco urged residents to get out of the way if Ernesto had swung toward New Orleans and reminded reporters that Katrina's track had shifted sharply northwestward to target New Orleans just two days before it slammed ashore.

"We take no storms for granted," she said.

New Orleans More Vulnerable Now Than Last Year

Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for the city of New Orleans, expressed confidence that the city could get all residents who wanted to leave out of harm's way if another storm struck. But he said the city's partially repaired levees and a crippled water system may not be able to withstand another blow so soon after Katrina.

"I'm worried that we have infrastructure shortfalls that still would impact this city if we were to take a major strike," he told The Associated Press, memories of last year's disaster still painfully fresh.

Thousands of New Orleanians -- mostly poor people unable to evacuate the city because they had no private means of transportation -- became trapped in the city when Katrina's deadly floods poured through the levee system that surrounds it.

A City Still Trying to Get Back On its Feet

One year after Katrina, the floodwaters are gone and some neighborhoods are coming back to life, but New Orleans remains a city where debris is still being collected, and carried away from the city by truck.

The remains of wrecked houses are still being demolished, especially in the worst-hit Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Even in areas that were not as badly damaged, such as Gentilly, some residents have returned to their homes, but many others remain devoid of any sign of life.

Most tragically, the badly-decomposed bodies of victims killed by Katrina are still being found in the Lower Ninth Ward as work crews toil to remove the wreckage.

(A personal note: This blogger -- whose mother was born and raised in the Big Easy -- lost a cousin to the catastrophe. Unwilling to abandon her many pets, my cousin refused to leave her Ninth Ward bungalow. Her body and the bodies of several of her animals were found inside the house after the floodwaters receded).

Almost 50 percent of New Orleans' half-million residents are still scattered across the country. Some have vowed never to return and are settling permanently in their new surroundings.

Federal Response to Katrina Still Dogs Bush

President Bush returned to the jazz city Tuesday and promised the federal government would do better if another disaster hit. He said New Orleans had survived fire, war and epidemics, and always came back "louder, brasher and better," and that he saw the same resolve this time.

"It's always been a city of second chance," he said.

The president again took "full responsibility" for the federal government's slow response to the disaster, which pushed his popularity to new lows and raised questions about his leadership.

His administration has struggled ever since to overcome the images of a city 80 percent under water, and residents -- stranded on rooftops and jammed in the Convention Center -- pleading for food and water.

"A year ago, I made a pledge that we will learn the lessons of Katrina and that we will do what it takes to help you recover," he told residents. "We looked at what went right and what went wrong, and we're addressing that which went wrong."

"If there is another natural disaster, we'll respond in better fashion," Bush said.

But Democrats, who are hoping to win back control of Congress in November's midterm elections, weren't about to let the president off the hook, as they converged on New Orleans aiming to highlight the administration's missteps in coping with the disaster.

"For the people of the Gulf Coast who survived Hurricane Katrina, this is more than a 'one year anniversary.' It's a hole they're still trying to dig themselves out of with too little help from the federal government," said Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), whom Bush defeated in 2004.

Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said Bush's promises of help for Katrina victims and changes to the federal response effort remain largely unfulfilled. He called Bush's trip "nothing more than a public-relations offensive designed to paper over failures."

An Associated Press-Ipsos Poll released last Friday found that a year after the disaster, a solid two-thirds majority of respondents still disapproved of the president's handling of Katrina. A New York Times/CBS News Poll conducted this month found a much narrower 51 percent majority of those surveyed disapproved of the way Bush had responded to the needs of hurricane victims. But the figure represented an increase from a 48 percent disapproval rating in that same poll a year ago.

FEMA's Bungling a Source of Persistent Anger

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had the enormous task of providing housing assistance (rental assistance, trailers, etc.) to over 700,000 applicants, mostly families and individuals. However, because of logistical and communications breakdowns, only one-fifth of the trailers FEMA requested for New Orleans were actually delivered, resulting in an enormous housing shortage in the city.

As of early July of this year, there were still about 100,000 people living in 37,745 FEMA-provided trailers. FEMA was accused of making things worse, instead of making things better — perhaps even deliberately — by preventing help by others while delaying its own response.

The bungling ultimately led to the firing of FEMA Director Michael Brown.

Even Journalists Overwhelmed by Scope of Catastrophe

The sheer magnitude of the disaster and the chaos surrounding it was emotionally overwhelming even for some of the most seasoned journalists covering it, as they struggled to keep from losing their composure on the air.

By far the most dramatic images were on Fox News, as anchor Geraldo Rivera broke down and forcefully pleaded for authorities to either send help or evacuate the thousands of evacuees stranded at the stricken city's convention center.

It didn't help that thousands of Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard troops -- who would otherwise be at the forefront of the recovery effort -- were half a world away in Iraq and Afghanistan, adding to the sense of chaos.

A Wholly Different Situation in Mississippi

In sharp contrast to New Orleans, the response to Katrina in Mississippi could not have been more starkly different. Governor Haley Barbour's response was characterized by a concerted effort at evacuation, tough-minded talk on looters and an unwillingness to blame the federal government. His response was compared, favorably, to that of then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Critics charge that the Republican Barbour's Washington ties and closeness to the Bush administration -- Barbour is a former GOP National Committee chairman --may have given his state an advantage over Democrat-led Louisiana in obtaining billions in federal aid for disaster relief and reconstruction.

And Bush's travel itinerary looked a lot like his previous trips to the Gulf Coast, many of which have been criticized as featuring too much staged contact with supportive locals and overly dominated by meetings with officials. The president was also scheduled to spend more time freely roaming Mississippi than Louisiana.

So far, Congress has approved $110 billion in hurricane aid. The Bush administration has released $77 billion to the states, reserving the rest for future needs, but $33 billion of that -- most of it earmarked for Louisiana -- has not yet been spent.

Don Powell, Bush's federal Gulf Coast coordinator, also warned in an interview with The Associated Press that no more money would flow to the region until there is proof that what has been approved is being well-spent.

"It's now time for the people to demonstrate they're going to use this money wisely," Powell said. "We need to see plans, execution."

Can the Feds Really Handle Another Katrina?

After all the chaos that ensued after Katrina, this blogger, quite frankly, has little confidence that the Bush administration will be able to handle another superhurricane slamming the Gulf Coast or Atlantic Seaboard this season, despite promises by FEMA Director Kenneth Paulson, who replaced the fired Michael Brown.

Indeed, Katrina prompted many Americans to ask, "If the administration couldn't handle Katrina, how in God's name can it handle another September 11?"

God help the Bush White House if they botch it again.

(The Associated Press, The BBC, The Weather Channel and Reuters contributed to this report.)

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Volume I, Number 39
Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

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