Considering engineering

Thursday, September 1st, 2005

Mark Bernstein provides a link to this article in Civil Engineering called The Creeping Storm. A bit of it goes like this

In the 1980s Joseph Suhayda, then a coastal oceanographer in the civil engineering department at Louisiana State University (LSU), began to seek an answer to this question by simulating storms with a modified version of a hurricane model used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Suhayda first began modeling the storms to help parishes in southeastern Louisiana determine appropriate flood elevations for FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. As his modeling capabilities improved, he began to more closely investigate the level of protection provided by the levees encircling New Orleans.

Suhayda’s model contains a geographic information system overlay that divides a fairly large boundary, from Alabama to Texas, into 0.6 mi (1 km) grids containing information about ground elevations, land masses, and waterways. The FEMA hurricane model does not draw on the same processing power as AdCirc and in general produces more liberal projections of flooding from storm surges. But by solving numerical equations representing a storm’s pressure, wind forces, and forward velocity, Suhayda was able to use the model to predict the storm surge associated with an actual hurricane dozens of hours before it hit land. By subtracting the elevations on a topographical map of coastal Louisiana from those surge values, he was able to approximate the flood risk of a given storm.

In the 1990s, Suhayda began modeling category 4 and 5 storms hitting New Orleans from a variety of directions. His results were frightening enough that he shared them with emergency preparedness officials throughout Louisiana. If such a severe storm were to hit the city from the southwest, for instance, Suhayda’s data indicate that the water level of Lake Pontchartrain would rise by as much as 12 ft (3.7 m). As the storm’s counterclockwise winds battered the levees on the northern shore of the city, the water would easily top the embankments and fill the streets to a depth of 25 ft (7.6 m) or more.

Suhayda’s model is not the only one that describes such a catastrophe. A model called SLOSH (Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes), which is used by the National Weather Service and local agencies concerned with emergency preparedness, portrays an equally grim outcome should a storm of category 5 hit New Orleans. The SLOSH model does not contain nearly as many computational nodes as does AdCirc, it does not use a finite-element grid to increase the resolution of the nodes on shore, and its boundary is much smaller. Even so, its results are disheartening.

“Suppose it’s wrong,” says Combe, the Corps modeler. “Suppose twenty-five feet is only fifteen feet. Fifteen feet still floods the whole city up to the height of the levees.”

Experts say a flood of this magnitude would probably shut down the city’s power plants and water and sewage treatment plants and might even take out its drainage system. The workhorse pumps would be clogged with debris, and the levees would suddenly be working to keep water in the city. Survivors of the storm—humans and animals alike—would be sharing space on the crests of levees until the Corps could dynamite holes in the structures to drain the area. In such a scenario, the American Red Cross estimates that between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die.

Some announcer on TV tonight wonders if it’s too dangerous for the help to go in. Pathetic. So much talk about security and looting. People are dying in the streets, in shelters. Water’s everywhere but there is no water. Drop tons of meals-to-eat on the islands of waiting people. Time for “overwhelming aide.” Overwhelming aide. We have the force side down.

13 responses to “Considering engineering”

  1. susan says:

    How horrid. That the scenario was seen, known, yet a plan of action, if not a fix, was not provided for. There will be years for recovery and fingerpointing, and as you say, the woulda’s, coulda’s and shoulda’s will be taken more seriously we would hope. As far as warning, it reminds me terribly of the old sci-fi movies where the threat was kept secret to a few to avoid panic. The devastation was usually the same as what has happened in the Gulf states. I can’t imagine what these people are going through, but it would seem that loss of more life due from hunger and disease–and yes, violence–is the priority.

    Why can we build multimillion dollar sports arenas and not outfit them in preplanning for emergency disaster shelters such as this? Why is there land in Arizona (I believe it’s AZ) taken up by rotting airplanes when an empty building with full facilities could be sitting there waiting for something such as this instead?

  2. Steve says:

    It’s just one of those questions. Disasters have taught us lots of things. They helped to build the modern conception of administration and management. Now I think we lack the will, the leadership, and the energy. I hope I’m wrong. I need someone to convince me that I’m wrong about this.

  3. susan says:

    And how I would love to, to convince your generation, your children’s and theirs that things like this will never happen if they were preventable, will be immediately rectified if they weren’t, that my generation is one that will be improved upon for the betterment of all mankind. Such has, despite the flaws, been the case as history has shown–though with some fallbacks, sure. Where you seem to look for answers from government however, I seek rather in human nature. Which is the better bet?

  4. Steve says:

    This would only work if human nature and government were diametric, but they’re not. We live in a federal republic built on lots of assumptions about the role of government and the role of the individual. In our society isn’t government the best answer given the context?

  5. susan says:

    Wow. This could become pretty philosophical. My immediate response would be that understanding human nature, I must agree with you. But then, human nature does play a huge part in government, and unfortunately, the flaws of putting off, feigning blindness, shirking responsibilities etc. are multiplied and validated by strength in numbers of those we place in position. But as a whole, we as the people expect them to behave in a more intelligent and experienced manner than we as individuals may. It is supposedly our “brain” that tells us not only what is best for the “body” but is compassionate and human as well.

  6. JRadke says:

    Government governs–it maintains order, protects freedom, and fights for its way of life.

    But Government is never the answer to a Human problem. When it is allowed to become so, the situation becomes perverted.

    Case in point: read the various headlines and commentaries and see the amount of people using this hurricane to advance political agendas.

    Or take the war in Iraq. There are more casulties on the political battleground than on the Middle East desert.

    Helping people recover from tragedy caused by a natural disaster, or sacrificing ourselves to rid an oppressed people of tyranny, is not something that falls under the jurdistiction of government (and thus it cannot either be blamed, save for standing in the way). For these are tests of our Humanity.

  7. Beverly Kissane says:

    It’s that compassion and humanity that we have lost grasp of from the technological world we live. People have lost everything from nature itself in this tragic episode, much like when the network crashes. When nature strips us from our luxuries, we can’t respond as nicely as when our computer breaks down. It’s beneficial for all if we just toss it in the trash and go out and buy a new one. Are we becoming crippled in this nation? The leadership is there, but they don’t want to get their hands dirty.

  8. susan says:

    I think the government is totally responsible for this debacle–just in reading “The Creeping Storm”–for the planning and prevention, and for providing immediate assistance following. But government is made up of people who are subject to their own human nature. I also believe, however, that–and this is without seeing the layout of the land and the positions of the people as to what they were and were not able to do in the aftermath–people are responsible to help themselves and others. You bring water and food to the roof with you, you don’t need the military to set up toilet areas, help the sick, bury the dead, send out a search party for food or a way out. Some were trapped, some weren’t. Some believed more in the government than in themselves. Most didn’t have a chance, but some were able and willing to do all they could to help each other. Some didn’t.

  9. susan says:

    BTW, I don’t mean to assign blame as much as to emphasize the nature of man against a massive force of nature. How different is the engineer who says “I think it’ll hold” in considering the possible quality of the hurricane against the levee, and the man who says the same thing about house and chooses to remain? Both have shown poor judgement and unfounded optimism in retrospect.

  10. susan says:

    And I may as well get this one said, in response to your “Some announcer on TV tonight wonders if it’s too dangerous for the help to go in. Pathetic.”

    As a former EMT, we are taught that the very first thing upon arrival to a scene is to secure that scene–which means, make sure it is safe. Example, the helpful idiot that ends up getting fried because he runs over to a guy waving for help from his car that’s sitting on a power line.

    There is more than a caring for personnel involved behind this method of operation: You become twice the problem by not following protocol. You become one more victim to add to the need and you become one less person to help those in need.

    I’ll shut up now.

  11. Marid says:

    Jradke’s statement that says it is not the governments job to help people in times of disaster and tries to lend creedence to the illegal Iraq invasion is specious at best and utterly ridiculous. Under Section 8 of our Constitution the only legal ways for our government to spend money is in defence of the Nation, Iraq did not attack us ( any war of choice or offense is forbidden ), and for the welfare of the people, which, in my opinion, includes protecting from natural disasters and helping people recover from these events. NO could have been saved, I sat on a Levee in NO with towboat pilots, I was one myself, 25 years ago and discussed this exact disaster. The cutting of funding and planning to meet this event is a true crime against humanity. After seeing FEMA’s models in 2001, there is no excuse for this crime against the people of our nation. Just another few thousand American graves with the stamp of Bush upon them.

  12. Steve says:


    I’d suggest that the “stamp” issue is more complex than as a result of just one administration. Many Congresses and administrations preferred to go for the pork rather than to act on executable and reliable information. Even I of the GLH have advocated different ways of powering ourselves, ideas that will surely be addressed later by the press-conference-class as “new” and “worth pursuing” in a tone of “Gee, it’s all new to us. We’ll certainly give it more credence now.”

    I think it’s pretty clear in terms of the nature of the human creature: we rarely act until its either too late or we’re forced to.

  13. susan says:

    Thank you. This goes many administrations back, and there was–from the referenced work you cited–some obvious errors and procrastination of taking this seriously through the 1990’s–until the storm of 1998 refocused some interest. It was a pot about to boil over and ignored at many levels of government for many decades.