Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people and left about 100,000 homeless—what might the coming season hold for the nation?
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In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 Americans and left about 100,000 homeless. In the process, it changed the world’s perception of the United States of America, as well as the nation’s view of its own vulnerability.
Some facts: Katrina was the most catastrophic event in a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season that saw 15 hurricanes (storms with winds of at least 74 miles per hour) among 28 named tropical storms (storms are named when winds reach 39 mph), both of which are the highest tallies on record. Seven of these were considered “major storms” (Category Three or above, with winds at or above 111 mph; also referred to as “severe” or “intense”). Four of them made landfall in the U.S.—Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
The season is officially marked as June 1 through November 30, but storms such as Epsilon and Zeta were still churning in December and even January 2006.
As the city of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast continues to struggle with a prolonged rebuilding effort, the entire nation looks to the new season with heightened uneasiness.
The Atlantic hurricane zone includes the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic. Forecasts for 2006 vary depending on the source. After early predictions of a storm season even worse than last year’s, the most recent long-range forecasts predict that 2006 will yield a season that is destructive—and considerably more active than average—but less powerful than 2005.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a division of the United States Department of Commerce, expects 13 to 16 named storms, above the 40-year average of 11, and predicts that anywhere from four to six will be intense storms.
The London-based Tropical Storm Risk (TSR), a group that provides risk analysis for the insurance industry and other sectors of business and government, forecasts 14 tropical storms, of which eight will become hurricanes and three will be intense. They expect four tropical storms to make landfall in the U.S., two of which will be hurricane strength. Colorado State University’s hurricane forecast team anticipates 17 tropical storms, nine of which will become hurricanes and five of which will be intense.
These groups base their predictions on data such as the speed of Caribbean and North Atlantic trade winds, as well as sea surface temperature. Though not as extreme as in 2005, surface temperatures of waters from the western end of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico are again above average; readings above 82 degrees are associated with the formation of hurricanes.
Taking a broader view, NOAA scientists believe that the year 1995 began a weather cycle that creates more favorable conditions for the formation of tropical storms—and that this cycle could last for decades! All but two seasons since 1995 have had an average or above average number of hurricanes. Also, the years 2003 to 2005 featured the highest three-year totals of both North Atlantic hurricanes (31) and U.S. hurricane landfalls (11). NOAA’s director, Max Mayfield, told a congressional panel in September 2005 that “it’s like somebody threw a switch” in 1995 (MSNBC).
So what might this season hold?
The expectation of a somewhat milder season does not elicit a sigh of relief among meteorologists or government officials, since the ultimate impact of hurricanes depends not just on their strength and frequency, but also on where they make landfall. Although it is too early for analysts to accurately pinpoint which regions the storms will strike, they are now warning of the likely consequences of hurricanes hitting certain areas and cities.
The Georgia-based risk assessment firm Kinetic Analysis Corporation lists New Orleans as the American city most likely to be hit by a hurricane. This would be a major setback in an already slow recovery. The firm’s report also includes Mobile, Alabama, as well as Key West and Pensacola, Florida (Reuters). The National Hurricane Center adds Houston and Galveston, Texas, New York City and Long Island, and New England.
Some view New York as being overdue for a hurricane hit. The last landfall there was Hurricane Gloria, a mild Category Two that struck in September 1985. A 1990 study conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers placed New York as the third most vulnerable American city, behind New Orleans and Miami.
Last year’s hurricanes prompted city officials to reassess their preparedness strategy: “The city’s Office of Emergency Management has plotted sobering block-by-block maps of how a hurricane could ravage New York. Even a small hurricane would put great stretches of the city under water: Coney Island, the fringes of lower Manhattan, the east and west sides of Staten Island, swaths of Queens and Brooklyn along Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal. A moderate hurricane would sweep up from Jamaica Bay and put much of southern Brooklyn and Queens under water, and a major hurricane would flood the eastern Bronx. New York is above sea level, unlike New Orleans, so a storm surge that flooded low parts of the city would drain out to sea within a day or two. But it would leave vital transportation paralyzed, with road, subway and train tunnels flooded” (New York Daily News).
A hurricane striking this city could present a worst-case scenario on a scale that would boggle the mind. There is historical precedent for severe storms in New York, as occurred in 1821 and 1938.
The former storm submerged lower Manhattan, with a 13-foot storm surge crashing into New York Harbor; the flooding would have been much worse had the storm arrived during high tide.
The latter storm was the area’s worst on record, killing up to 700 people in New York, New Jersey and New England; it still ranks among the deadliest in U.S. history. “A total of 16,740 structures were destroyed and many more damaged. 16,000 families were displaced or left homeless. The toll for mariners could only be described as catastrophic. Over 2,600 boats were lost or destroyed beyond repair and another 3,300 damaged. The landscape was instantly and permanently altered. Debris was everywhere. An estimated 2 billion trees were downed along with 20,000 miles of electric power and telephone lines. The wind-driven rains carried dissolved ocean salt, which damaged vegetation 50 to 100 miles inland. There were reports of a sea-salt residue on windows in Montpelier, Vermont.
“During the rainfall that preceded and accompanied the hurricane, an average of 11 inches of rain fell over a 10,000 square mile area. Four days of rain culminating in the hurricane downpours left 10 to 17 inches in the Connecticut River Valley, resulting in some of the worst flooding ever recorded there. The wave of flooding inflicted major damage from New York and Connecticut to Massachusetts and Vermont…Christopher Landsea, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Research Division and Roger Pielke, a social scientist at the National Center of Atmospheric Research looked at the most destructive hurricanes and estimated the cost if they were to hit today. The Hurricane of ‘38, they found would be the sixth costliest of all-time. In 1998 dollars, their study estimates that a repeat of the ‘38 storm would produce $19 billion in damages today” (Intellicast).
As destructive as the 1938 hurricane was, it also could have been much worse if the eye of the storm had hit Manhattan, the heart of the city.
The population density in New York, as well as general complacency on the part of New Yorkers—most have never lived through a severe hurricane—would present incredible obstacles in the aftermath of such an event. Local officials have warned residents to be prepared to survive for up to five days without any assistance, services or utilities. Those who live in more frequently hit states such as Florida become somewhat accustomed to keeping a stock of survival supplies, boarding up windows, evacuating their homes and heading to shelters, which somewhat mitigates the loss of life and property. But this is not a routine that is practiced by their northern coastal counterparts.
In addition, New York State is second only to Florida in the total value of property at risk for hurricane damage. And since New York City is the largest American metropolitan area—and the third largest in the world—and the nation’s financial center, the economic implications of an intense storm are nothing short of staggering.
The economy of greater New York City is larger than the vast majority of nations on earth. A shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the city’s port would affect the entire nation in an even more dramatic way than did Katrina, and would reverberate in economies around the globe.
Is New York, the rest of the nation—and the rest of the world—prepared? Could the American stock market quickly recover from extended down time? How quickly—and how far—would a crippled NYSE drag down the indexes of the British FTSE, the Japanese Nikkei or the German DAX?
Before Hurricane Katrina, Americans who lived far from the Atlantic Coast may have been more likely to assume that their lives would be untouched by distant storms. This blissful ignorance was shattered on a number of fronts.
Displaced residents of New Orleans were dispersed across the country, having lost their homes, possessions and, in many cases, loved ones. They brought immediate needs, such as affordable housing and steady employment, to areas that were sometimes poorly prepared to absorb them.
Katrina shut down as much as 25% of U.S. oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, and roughly 20% is still out of commission. Drivers from the coasts to the heartland watched gasoline prices spike, with manufacturers’ and retailers’ increased transportation costs being passed on to the consumer across the board. Although the price per gallon was still well below the typical cost paid by Europeans or even Canadians, Americans loudly complained. Some chose to simply drive away from the pump without paying—plain theft rationalized away as a grassroots protest. Politicians made sure to capitalize on the discontent.
Add to all this the huge cost of federal disaster relief that eventually trickles down to the general public. After Katrina and Rita, Congress approved $68 billion of aid. Investigations have since concluded that up to $2 billion of the $19 billion spent so far was lost to fraud! Fraud cases have ranged from damage claims on non-existent properties to requests for funeral assistance for fictional relatives. Relief funds provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were spent on season football tickets, pornography, Dom Perignon champagne, divorce proceedings, a 70-day stay in a Hawaiian hotel and even a sex-change operation! One individual used 13 Social Security numbers to receive $139,000 in aid payments, all sent to the same address. With such a huge amount of money rushed into the relief effort, even prison inmates were able to scam FEMA—and all at taxpayer expense!
Who will pay for another crop of storms in 2006?
The oil business was not the only industry that took a hard hit in 2005. The insurance industry is still reeling from a record $54.8 billion in insured losses. Katrina accounted for $38 billion of this, and stands as the most costly catastrophe in American history, nearly double the cost of the 9/11 attacks. The season caused three American insurance companies to go out of business.
Insurers and reinsurers (the larger, global corporations that provide insurance for insurance companies) are now attempting to learn lessons and plan ahead. Moving to reduce financial risk, well-known companies such as State Farm and Allstate have halted the writing of new homeowners’ policies in Louisiana, Florida, Texas and even parts of New York. Another firm has declined to renew existing policies for customers in coastal Massachusetts.
Despite the known risks, Americans have been increasingly flocking to the Atlantic coast for decades, both as permanent residents and owners of second homes. Soon, many may find that property insurance is priced beyond their means—or simply unavailable.
What happens when neither insurance nor federal and state governments can foot the bill in a storm’s wake?
An earlier quote compared the sudden onset in 1995 of an intensified hurricane cycle to the throwing of a switch. Why did this happen? Many view shifts such as this as merely the random acts of an unpredictable, impersonal “Mother Nature.” But, ironically, a standard term used by insurance companies to describe a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane is “an act of God.”
Which view is correct?
The United States has been the single most blessed nation on earth. Its natural resources—complemented by a temperate climate—have played a large part in this prosperity.
Has this been a matter of chance?
It has not. Millennia ago, the God who created the earth described the path to blessing and cursing in His Word (Lev. 26; Deut. 28). Obedience to His Law leads to blessings, while disobedience brings curses, both for nations and individuals. And make no mistake—God is sovereign over earth’s atmosphere, and will allow adverse weather if a nation flagrantly breaks His Law: “When He utters His voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens; and He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth: He makes lightnings with rain, and brings forth the wind out of His treasures…He causes His wind to blow, and the waters flow” (Jer. 51:16; Ps. 147:18).
God is removing the blessings that have been enjoyed by America and other nations that have descended from the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (or Israel). While one cannot know exactly what is in store in 2006, you can know the big picture—in advance!
To learn more, read our book America and Britain in Prophecy. Also, look for our follow-up article “Hurricane Katrina: One Year Later—What America Failed to Learn” in the next issue of The Real Truth.