Are We Ready For The Next Katrina?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | August 27, 2009 8:16 am

The following post was originally published on August 30, 2007.

* * * * * * * * *


In January of 2003, I sat in Joe Kelley’s seminar at the University of Maine as he foretold the devastation that was to come to New Orleans. I’d never heard this chilling story before and listened intently as he explained that as far back as when The Big Easy flooded in the 1920’s, scientists realized that the Mississippi Delta would continue to change its course (rivers have a habit of doing that you see). I began to understand that over time, the already vulnerable city faced increasing threat and felt dizzy amid the whirlwind of so many alarming facts and figures.

The levees are inadequate… Louisiana loses 25-35 square miles of land each year to the ocean… Coastal wetlands (natural buffers to storm surges) are disappearing…. Many parts of the city are below sea level… Which by the way, is rising… Residents are supposed to keep axes in their attics… and on and on…

What?! This surely couldn’t be true. If the situation were really that bad, no one would stay. Did the federal government know? Did residents realize? Maybe the scientists were a bunch of alarmists… (Hey wait, isn’t that what they’re claiming now with regard to global warming?! Michael Crichton take note!)

But Professor Joe Kelley is a nationally renowned marine geologist who’s scientific expertise on the Louisiana coastline has long been sought by private and government organizations. Surely he knew what he was talking about, not to mention he even used to be a professor at the University of New Orleans. So evidently, there was something to all this coastal geology.

In 1984, Joe wrote ‘Living With the Louisiana Shore‘ predicting much of what has come to pass. Obviously, for more reasons than Orwell, we should have paid better attention to what we were warned about that year. The science and history of hurricanes in Louisiana sounded terrifying and it was obvious to me – and everyone in the room – that New Orleans didn’t stand a chance.

Pre-Katrina, Kelley was asked to participate in a National Academy of Science Panel when the Bayou State wanted to request federal funds to address it’s obvious levee problem. The panel recommended $14 billion from the federal government over 50 years to save the Delta, but the Bush Administration ultimately decided it couldn’t commit Congress to 50 years of funding.

Then came the August Category 3 hurricane that ravaged the city.

Exactly two years ago today I saw Joe Kelley at the local market in Old Town, Maine. “Joe,” I said. “You told us. We knew this was coming.” He’s looked tired. He looked so sad. He could only shake his head.

Hundreds of lives lost. Families torn apart. Homes and memories gone forever. And as I stared speechless at him, my thoughts in repetitive sequence like a skipping phonograph, ‘But we knew Joe. You told them. They knew. And did nothing…

* * * * * * * * *

Just published in PLoS ONE:
Business Return in New Orleans: Decision Making Amid Post-Katrina Uncertainty


Comments (5)

  1. Guy

    “What?! This surely couldn’t be true. If the situation were really that bad, no one would stay. Did the federal government know? Did residents realize? Maybe the scientists were a bunch of alarmists… (Hey wait, isn’t that what they’re claiming now with regard to global warming?! Michael Crichton take note!)”

    You do know that Michael Crichton is dead right?

    I think people tend to put their blinders on when it comes to something that would inconvenience them such as having to relocate or go to great expense.

  2. You do know that Michael Crichton is dead right?

    Yes, this post was composed in 2007.

  3. MadScientist

    There are a number of issues here – for example:

    1. people like to say “that can’t happen here”, “that’s not happening”, and “that’s never happened before” – most if not all of which are wrong

    2. if you rant on about an infrequent event for long enough, it may happen. I wouldn’t go for “The sculpture on Mount Rushmore will collapse!” because that’s not likely to happen in my lifetime, but I’m getting tired of the “large meteorite can swat us, let’s put all our money into tracking near earth objects” story. So how do you convince the public of something when they can’t imagine that there is evidence there to support the claim? It’s funny though how the public would trust a Jeanne Dixon more than any scientist – why is that so?

  4. Speaking as a Louisiana ex-pat, growing up in Baton Rouge the question every hurricane season was not if NOLA was going to get drowned, but when. We all knew it was a city in danger, especially as our coastal marshes (which chew up a lot of storm energy) faded into history. Many citizen groups tried to do something, but in the corrupt world of Louisiana politics, no one had enough money to buy off the right levee boards to make sure levees were maintained 9which by federal law is a local responsibility, even when the Corps of Engineers builds the original levee). No one in Congress wanted to fund the levee construction fully at any time either – good enough was always the rule, not the exception. And the federal government, which contributed to the problem of coastal erosion by leveeing the Mississippi all the way to the mouth at Venice, still refuses to pay the bill to fix the marsh and delta system that used to protect my second home.

    So if you live elsewhere in the U.S. – thanks for helping with the clean-up, and for rebulding houses, and for standing up (however briefly) for funding to try to save the Big Easy. But stop condescending to us that we were ignorant and put our heads in the sand – the whole nation still has its head in the sand about conditions in NOLA, and on the Gulf Coast.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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