In 2002, John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein wrote “Washing Away,” an award-winning series for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The authors exposed the unique vulnerability of New Orleans to hurricanes, exploring “an obvious but little-acknowledged fact: here was a city that, for the six months of every hurricane season, lived with a substantial risk of utter annihilation…much of the city was built on top of a swamp, below sea level and gradually sinking.”
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Louisiana coast. In Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, McQuaid and Schleifstein revisit familiar territory, helping readers understand why this tragic event happened when there were so many warnings.
Path of Destruction outlines the factors that contributed to the tragedy in New Orleans. By 2005, many levees were still incomplete and those built had inadequate safety levels, with safety factors of 1.3 (bridges have a safety factor of 2). The Army Corps of Engineers were more interested in commerce than hurricane safety. When combined with sinking marshlands and unstable soil, these facts increased the likelihood that levees would be overtopped or broken by a Category 2 hurricane, turning much of New Orleans into a lake. Hurricanes sweeping in off the Gulf of Mexico no longer have extensive marshlands to diminish the storm’s strength for “the delta has collapsed like a soufflé.
McQuaid and Schleifstein also provide extensive evaluation of Katrina’s aftermath. Once the levees broke, 80% of New Orleans was under water and the delayed response by FEMA severely increased the misery caused by Katrina.
Despite the harrowing experiences of one year ago and the knowledge that what happened in New Orleans was “catastrophic structural failure” not an “act of God,” the US government is poised to repeat prior mistakes. The Corps is rebuilding levees to their former level of protection, leaving New Orleans as exposed as before Katrina. At one point, Corps contractors were caught “dredging up weak soil and incorporating it into a new levee.” Given the prediction of an increase in Katrina-like storms, the time to act and prevent future tragedies is now.
Read the review at Armchair Interviews.
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: August 16, 2006
NOTE: I am working on a feature article for RiverWired.com (a new social networking site being launched in November) about the batch of books published on Hurricane Katrina this year. Further analysis of Path of Destruction will be included in that article, which I will post here once it is published.
tags: books book reviews John McQuaid Mark Schleifstein Hurricane Katrina New Orleans superstorms environmental issues