Articles > Feature Articles

Life After Katrina

The hurricane was one for the record books, but it's how technical professionals are helping the region recover that makes for an even more interesting chapter.

By Anne Baye Ericksen

Hurricane Katrina

Beyond imagination...unbelievable...catastrophic.... Those are just a few of the words used to describe the devastation left behind by last year's hurricane season. From the Florida Keys to the Texas Gulf coast, Mother Nature wreaked havoc on the region with a whopping total of 15 hurricanes. Of course, the most destructive of the bunch was Hurricane Katrina.

Last August, the tragic scenes across television screens captivated all of America: Thousands upon thousands of citizens struggling to cope with the storm's aftermath. It seemed like something from a bad Hollywood disaster film, only it was all too real.

From a statistical perspective, Katrina was a mathematical phenomenon: a central pressure reading of 902 Hpa, a Rmax (or radius) that spanned 32 miles, 10 inches of rainfall, coastal surges of more than 20 feet in some areas and multiple failures of the levee system. All of this left more than 770,000 homeless, and caused 1,100 official fatalities and more than $100 billion in total losses.

Hurricane Katrina is the country's most extensive natural disaster in recorded history, and now, one of the most ambitious rebuilding endeavors. Cities' infrastructures need to be reassembled. Roadways must be repaved. Homes have yet to be rebuilt. This is where the expertise of engineers from virtually every discipline along with architects, urban planners, and many other technical professionals gets put to the test.

The Making of a Disaster

In the months leading up to Hurricane Katrina, Florida had already been battered with a multitude of tropical storms and hurricanes. So when the late summer weather system made its way up the western coast of the sunshine state's peninsula, residents were ready. As it turns out, the damage there was limited and manageable.

It wasn't until the hurricane veered west toward southern Louisiana did it really gather strength. At one point, it reached category five status, with winds exceeding 155 miles per hour. By the time it made landfall, however, it had dissipated slightly to a category four hurricane. Still, Katrina was poised to wield her power. In less than 36 hours, it had traveled alongside the Big Easy, across Mississippi and entered Alabama, before losing strength and moving north. Katrina covered 250 miles of coastline and more than 100 miles inland. Additionally, its winds were the eighth strongest on record.

With such force exhibited, the degree of damage left in her wake should come as no surprise. "Katrina was a massive storm. [It] reminded me of a series of tornados that were connected to each other and wiped out everything in their paths," states Harry Lee James, chief engineering department and executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, based in Jackson.

"The extent of the devastation is hard to picture based on aerial photos or TV stories," adds Rick Cloutier, senior vice president for CDM, an engineering consulting firm located in Houston. "You got the full impact only after you drove through the area, block after block, mile after mile."

Below Sea Level

Among the severely affected areas were New Orleans and its surrounding parishes, much of which was situated below sea level. Although the area was relatively unscathed by the hurricane itself, the 350 miles of levees built around the city were designed only to withstand category three winds. The structure gave way just hours after the storm passed and water from Lake Pontchartrain poured into the city unabated for 36 hours.

Hurricane Katrina

"There were Home Depots and car dealerships underwater—brand-new cars underwater," describes Tom Murphy, a consultant working with the Gulf Coast Rebuilding commission for the Urban Land Institute, headquartered in Washington D.C.

Making matters worse, the water contained bacteria 10 times above acceptable levels because the area's sewer and waste water systems were inoperable. Additionally, gasoline and oil tanks cracked, seeping their contents into the floodwater. This is where Cloutier and his team initially concentrated their efforts. "The focus was on analysis, such as the mechanical condition of the pumping stations, which had been flooded. There was a high mineral content in the water and the flood fried the electrical systems and some mechanical components," he explains. "[We had] to determine the extent of the damage and what corrective action was required. Most of that was accomplished in a matter of weeks after the hurricane. Once the water was pumped out and had receded, the tasks became easier."

This undertaking required a diverse team, including electrical and construction engineers as well as communication specialists. Many of his crew actually came from the company's New Orleans site as well as from the Baton Rouge office, which had survived Katrina intact.

"We had people mobilized within days after the hurricane," says Cloutier. "Before the hurricane, we had 30 engineers and professional staff in the New Orleans office. Twenty of them were reporting to Baton Rouge and the remainder relocated out of state."

On the Road

Katrina released its full force on the beaches of Mississippi, literally lifting buildings off of their slabs. Although the winds were still extremely powerful when they reached Biloxi and neighboring communities, it was actually the water surge that delivered the deadliest punch. There were reports of waves peaking at 20-plus feet, which is what experts typically associate with a category five storm.

For James, the immediate objective was to clear the arterial roadways so emergency vehicles and personnel could reach the areas most desperate for their services. "We cleared the main north-south corridor to the coast. It was hard to tell the extent of the damage because of the amount of sand blown up from the beaches," he explains. "It was a massive cleanup effort to uncover the road and see what damage was done. But the more we uncovered, the more we realized how fortunate we were. The farther east we went, the less damage there was."

However, his team did encounter patches of pavement buckling or in disrepair, loads of debris and fallen trees, and nonfunctioning traffic signals. Two major bridges, the St. Louis Bay and the Bay of Biloxi bridges, each less than two miles long, suffered such significant damage that they were impassable. Other bridges were also affected, albeit to a lesser degree. "The major bridges in the eastern [region] of the state had parts that were broken from their moorings and even took a tug boat with it," notes James.

Fortunately, his department had access to a bevy of consultants and a labor force to assist in the cleanup efforts. "We could have done it internally, but not in the timeframe needed," James states. "Our contractor base assisted us early on in getting the roads back open."

Hurricane Katrina

In fact, the department moved quickly and visible progress was made within weeks. By early October, most of the main roads were travelable. "The primary goal was to get the interstates open, both I-10 and I-110, which drops down to the south. There was a bridge that was damaged and we had to restrict the traffic to it, but it was nearly opened within 30 days."

The work to restore all the signals and smooth the roadways is ongoing, especially as the cities undergo their recovery efforts. "We didn't want to completely rebuild the roads and then have them torn up with the heavy equipment that's being moved around during the rebuilding," notes James. Rather, the final touchups will come later when the majority of heavy construction is completed.

Meanwhile, plans have been finalized to reconstruct the St. Louis Bay and the Bay of Biloxi bridges. And, of course, the new designs have taken prospective hurricanes into consideration. "We [established] parameters to address the impacts of future storms, such as tidal surges," James states. Still, it'll take time. Those structures aren't slated to reopen until at least late 2007.

Shoring Things Up

For the first 10 months after the storms (including Hurricane Rita), most of the technical efforts focused on removing the debris, such as the mud and sludge, structure demolition and, of course, levee stabilization.

Indeed, the shoring up of the levee system in New Orleans before the onset of the 2006 hurricane season in June was the engineering priority. This responsibility has always fallen under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Its crews have worked diligently to restore the structure.

"The effort to effectively restore the hurricane protection system that was so badly damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year is one of the largest and most ambitious civil works projects ever undertaken in the United States," stated Maj. Gen. Don Riley, USACE director of Civil Works in a press release.

For the most part, the goal was accomplished. The Corps doubled the standard amount of quality control and quality assurance inspections to ensure the soil and other materials met the highest standards. However, the levees were basically returned to their previous state, but with plans in place to upgrade them to withstand category five winds by 2010. Now, the spotlight is on getting people's homes and businesses back up and running."There were the obvious, technical aspects, such as the levees and pumps, but the human impact of thousands and thousands of homeless people [has to be addressed]," says Murphy. "What will the neighborhoods look like? Will houses have to be jacked up 10 feet? Environmental engineers are important, as well as neighborhood land use [experts]. Houses have to be built to survive significant wind damage."

Hurricane Katrina

Of course, none of it will happen overnight. Rather, it will take place in many phases. "We are just beginning to elaborate on the planning process in each neighborhood," notes Murphy. In fact, many of the specifics are still being hashed out, but Congress has delegated funds toward particular projects that will see progress soon enough. Namely, $3.7 billion has been allotted for Louisiana flood control projects, $963 million to build a new six-lane Interstate 10 that will span over Lake Pontchartrain, and $1.5 billion for continued debris removal, among others.

"We are assisting in the design and some construction of the correction and improvement of the water delivery and waste water systems," says Cloutier. "We have staffed up and there are now 150 folks working in the impacted areas. Their skill sets range from construction inspection up to senior program and project management."

Indeed, the demand for technical personnel has skyrocketed in recent months as contracts have been awarded to companies and subcontractors. It's an ideal situation for young professionals who not only wish to test their engineering skills, but also pitch in to return the region to its once-flourishing self.

"We've had advertisements in regional papers looking for engineers and scientists in every discipline, from entry level to senior levels. That's a good indication that recovery efforts will require a spectrum of engineering skills," asserts Cloutier. "Anyone who has good technical skills and who is willing to be flexible in terms of location will find multiple exciting opportunities in the Katrina impact region."

Opportunities Everywhere

Although the Gulf Coast will require attention for years to come, it certainly isn't the only region that can benefit from disaster recovery strategies. Each year there will be another hurricane season or threat of catastrophic earthquakes and even manmade disasters. Experts suggest cities review their response and recovery plans by gauging them against what happened last summer.

"New Orleans is a reminder for every municipality regardless of where it is. At some point, we've overstepped the bound of what we are prepared to live with when nature pushes back," cautions Murphy.

"We had Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and there was an action plan after that. In both cases communication was an issue," adds James. "The cell towers went out with Katrina. We did have some satellite phones, but they worked sporadically. Also, we had plenty of fuel, but it was stuck in the ground and there was no way to pump it out without power. Maybe we'll have our own tanker trucks so we can be self-sufficient."

What it means for engineers and computer scientists, however, is that their fine-tuned problem-solving skills will gain value. Despite the tragedy Katrina and her sister hurricane Wilma created in the Gulf Coast region, the situation has spawned a burgeoning profession of recovery specialists. These individuals will apply their technical expertise to predisaster planning.

"Anything you can do to harden the critical infrastructure, like water delivery systems, emergency response systems, and communication system and plan for the worst [will be sought after]," offers Cloutier.

Cities will look to upgrade their communication systems to ensure constant contact among first-responders. Additionally, they'll want reassurance that any levee-like structures will maintain their integrity as well as bridges and highways will remain accessible. This calls for experts in inspection, testing and design. It also begs for such disciplines as civil, electrical and even environmental engineers to measure and determine worst-case scenarios and how they can be prevented. Plus, computer scientists and programmers who create simulation software will be equally needed.

While only time will heal the wounds of the 2005 hurricane season, the way we respond to disasters in the future has been forever changed. Expect a more technical approach where you can definitely play a significant role. You can make a difference in both the rebuilding process and in preparing for the future.

Anne Baye Ericksen is a free-lance writer based in Southern California.

environmental engineeringelectrical engineeringstructural engineeringcivil engineering

Articles > Feature Articles