The devastation and loss of life from Hurricane Katrina will send this storm into the history books as one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the United States. It is already being called the worst natural disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that leveled that city.
It will certainly go into the books as the most destructive hurricane, in terms of monetary damage, in U.S. history, although Hurricane Camille in 1969 was meteorologically a much stronger storm.
Like Katrina, Camille struck the Mississippi coast hard. Unlike Katrina, however, it struck while at maximum intensity. It remains the most intense storm ever to hit the U.S. with sustained wind speeds of 190 miles per hour at impact. Gusts were estimated to be more than 220 miles per hour in places.
But in 1969, the region was relatively sparsely populated. The death toll, estimated to be at least 255, would have been much higher if Camille had hit New Orleans, just to the west.
And that’s exactly what Katrina did. Katrina was a huge storm, with hurricane-force winds extending many dozens of miles from the eye wall. Even so, if it had hit only a few miles to the west of where it did, New Orleans would have received the full force of the storm instead of the glancing blow it got.
Even with the close side-swipe, however, New Orleans suffered extreme amounts of devastation. And most of it is due to the city’s topography. Much of it lies below sea level, relying on levees to hold back water from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
When Camille struck Biloxi in 1969, it produced a storm surge of 22 feet. Reports were heard of people climbing onto their rooftops to survive the encroaching ocean, even as far inland as two miles from the coast.
Yet, even knowing that such a scenario would surely repeat itself one day, residents vowed to rebuild. And so they did.
And now, the devastation has been repeated with Katrina. But even before the devastation had begun to be cleared away, news reports showed despondent residents vowing to stay and rebuild.
Hurricanes Katrina and Camille, along with 1992’s Andrew, which, like Katrina, struck both Florida and the Gulf Coast leaving billions of dollars in damage, were all natural disasters. As such, one might believe the extreme devastation could not have been avoided. After all, the technology does not exist now, let alone in 1969, to change the course of a hurricane, or to dissipate one.
But much of the loss of life and property could have been prevented.
In 1906, San Franciscans had no idea they were living on a major fault line. But after their rude awakening, they knew the score. They could rebuild, or they could look to build elsewhere. They chose to rebuild.
In 1969, the Gulf Coast along Mississippi had a few scattered towns and small cities. After their destruction by Camille, residents could have moved to safer ground, but they decided to stay put and rebuild.
New Orleans is a major city built below sea level in a region that is prone to hurricane strikes. It would be illogical to expect a major city, especially one with such historic significance, to pack it in and move upstream. But if it did, it would avoid being destroyed again in the future.
Today, million-dollar homes are being built right on top of major fault lines in San Francisco and Los Angeles. People are moving as close as they can to the sea shore in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.
It’s the same everywhere. In Italy, the City of Naples is paying people to move out of parts of the city that are in the red zone of Mount Vesuvius. Many are refusing because of the good volcanic soil used to grow grapes for wine.
I don’t mean to suggest that people who build near the seashore, near volcanoes, or on top of fault lines have it coming. And I certainly don’t mean to be insensitive to the tragedy.
But when people make a cognitive decision to live their lives in flood plains, beneath sea level near the coast, on a fault line, or close to an active volcano, then those people are gambling with their lives and property. Eventually, they will lose their wager. It’s inevitable.
Last week, nature cashed in on the people of New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.