Prescient Warnings of New Orleans’ Fate Were Numerous

By the nature of our work, we knock people. We knock journalists for falling back on tired and outmoded forms and formats; we knock them for lapsing into “he said/she said” journalism that doesn’t inform anyone; we knock them for favoring easy-chair speculation over the hard work of original reporting; we knock them for focusing on trivia; and we knock them for an aversion to taking on ambitious themes or asking big questions.

So today, at the end of this momentous week, let us pause to offer a little praise to those journalists — and their numbers were ample — who foresaw and warned of the tragedy that has since befallen New Orleans “with a prescience that now seems eerily precise,” as Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten put it today.

In his “Regarding Media” column, Rutten reminds us of the warnings that three major news organizations gave back in 2002:

Three years ago, New Orleans’ leading local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, National Public Radio’s signature nightly news program, “All Things Considered,” and the New York Times each methodically and compellingly reported that the very existence of south Louisiana’s leading city was at risk and hundreds of thousands of lives imperiled by exactly the sequence of events that occurred this week. All three news organizations also made clear that the danger was growing because of a series of public policy decisions and failure to allocate government funds to alleviate the danger.

As Rutten pointed out, the Times’ Adam Cohen, in his Editorial Observer column, noted in August 2002 that New Orleans was “a disaster waiting to happen. … If a bad hurricane hit, experts say, the city could fill up like a cereal bowl, killing tens of thousands and laying waste to the city’s architectural heritage. If the Big One hit, New Orleans could disappear.”

In April of that year, Jon Nordheimer reported for the Times’ science desk that “levees and luck” were no longer enough, according to engineers, “to protect New Orleans, much of it below sea level, from a devastating flood that could threaten it if a storm surge from a powerful hurricane out of the Gulf of Mexico propelled a wall of water into the lake and the city.”

In September 2002, NPR ran a lengthy two-part broadcast examining what would happen if a Category 5 hurricane hit Louisiana “just right,” which “could cause the biggest natural disaster in America’s history.” As Rutten noted, in the opening sequence reporter Daniel Zwerdling interviewed LSU researcher Joe Suhayda in the French Quarter as he demonstrated how massive flooding from such a storm would reach almost to the rooftop of a building:

Zwerdling: Do you expect this kind of hurricane and this kind of flooding to hit New Orleans in our lifetime?

Suhayda: Well, I would say the probability is yes. In terms of past experience, we’ve had three storms that were near misses that could have done at least something close to this.

Zwerdling: So basically the part of New Orleans that most Americans and most people around the world think of as New Orleans would disappear under water.

Suhayda: It would. That’s right.

More recently, U.S. News & World Report carried a story just weeks ago reiterating the various dangers New Orleans would face from a major storm, remarking that “New Orleans is more vulnerable today than ever.”

But the most potent warning came from the Times-Picayune, which ran an extensive five-part series by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein in June 2002 which led with this premise: “It’s only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.” The “Washing Away” series, much remarked-upon now, covered everything from the vulnerabilities of levees to the high cost of insurance, and from the dangers of overdevelopment to the mixed legacy of the Army Corps of Engineers’ work in Louisiana. But the most powerful installment was its second, “The Big One,” which laid out “emergency officials’ worst-case scenario: hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water pouring over the levees into an area averaging 5 feet below sea level with no natural means of drainage.” They continued:

That would turn the city and the east bank of Jefferson Parish into a lake as much as 30 feet deep, fouled with chemicals and waste from ruined septic systems, businesses and homes. Such a flood could trap hundreds of thousands of people in buildings and in vehicles …

Hundreds of thousands would be left homeless, and it would take months to dry out the area and begin to make it livable. But there wouldn’t be much for residents to come home to. The local economy would be in ruins.

Concludes Rutten, “Politics may have failed the people of New Orleans. … But their newspaper and other important segments of the American press did not fail them.”

The warnings were there. The press did its job, just as it has been doing in an impressive fashion this last week. And a look back at those reports only highlights the government’s stunning failure since to do its own.

We can’t ask for much more relevance than that.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.