WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Remembering The River Industry’s Response To Katrina

At this writing, Hurricane Laura, the strongest storm to hit the U.S. mainland this year, has weakened to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph., after making landfall near Cameron, La.  Gulf Coast communities have experienced high water levels in its wake. More than 700,000 people in Louisiana and Texas were without power on the afternoon of August 27, according to a website that tracks power outages. Laura’s remains were expected to spawn tornadoes and flash floods in Arkansas and Tennessee. It appears that major damage to grain-exporting terminals and facilities on the Lower Mississippi River has been avoided.

It’s a good time to look back 15 years, to August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina, the single most destructive storm in U.S. history, made landfall. Laura was a Category 4 just before it hit, while Katrina was a Category 5 in the Gulf before making landfall as a Category 3 hurricane.

Some of the property damage from the Katrina storm itself was dramatic. Buildings were blown away, boats and barges were blown ashore or away from their moorings, and some were sunk. But most of the property damage and the 1,800 casualties in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast were caused by the flooding when levees and flood walls broke. About 80 percent of the total land area of New Orleans was inundated, and by some counts, as many as 100,000 residents (or more) failed to evacuate ahead of the storm.  Coast Guard and Army helicopters and small boats performed heroically in rescuing those who stayed behind. Refugees were housed in the Superdome.

Not only New Orleans was affected. About 20 percent of the city of Biloxi, Miss., was flattened.

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A wall of water 25 feet high surged up the Mississippi River, breaking loose 300 barges fleeted around Myrtle Grove and Davant, La., and dropping them on levees.

At the time, many, including The Waterways Journal, said the scale of the damage was due to underspending on flood protection and lack of preparation, despite predictions of just such a storm. Since Katrina, the Corps of Engineers has spent about $14 billion to strengthen or rebuild levees and flood control structures in and around New Orleans with floodgates, storm surge barriers, rebuilt flood walls and re-armored levees, as well as pumping stations designed to carry huge amounts of water away from homes and into surrounding waterways. The Corps now says the system can resist a 100-year storm, one that has a chance of occurring only once every 100 years. 

Many barge companies at the time were able to position assets to avoid worse harm and to protect employees. The crew of the tug Colleen McAllister rode out the storm and helped round up stray barges. Company after company reported accounting for all its assets and having no casualties within hours or days after Katrina hit. The word “heroic” was often used by CEOs about barge industry employees. They were well-positioned to move supplies, round up barges or help those worse afflicted in whatever way they could. The houses of some barge executives were destroyed or flooded, yet they lived at their offices and continued to direct efforts to help others.

A month after Katrina, Hurricane Rita struck, causing more floods that overtopped levees hastily repaired after Katrina.

The many lessons learned by fleets and barge companies during and after Katrina were put to the test and reinforced during later hurricanes Rita, Gustav, Ike, Isaac, Harvey and, most recently, Laura. While no amount of construction or preparation can completely prevent damage from storms like this, the city of New Orleans, the Corps of Engineers, the barge industry and the Gulf Coast are all more resilient today than they were 15 years ago.

Human nature—neighbor helping neighbor, mariner helping mariner—remains more resilient than any passing storm.