Galveston Historian on Katrina

Isaac’s Storm

History News Network interviewed historian Erik Larson, author of Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. I think he has some interesting observations that are relevant to understanding Katrina.

The Katrina Death Toll

Also, I’d be cautious about anticipating a huge death toll in New Orleans. I heard a report on NPR today that officials had brought 25,000 body bags to New Orleans. I’m sticking my neck out here, but I’d be surprised if the toll in New Orleans topped 200. Those may be famous last words. I think where the death toll may turn out to be shockingly high is in Mississippi, in Gulfport and Biloxi, and surrounding coastal areas. As of this moment—c. 6:30 Pacific time, Sept. 8, 2005—the toll in Mississippi already is over 200, in New Orleans, somewhere around 50.

Government Response to the Galveston Hurricane

Did the president and Congress play a leading role in responding to the Galveston disaster?

No. A vast outpouring of money and supplies from individuals around the country, and the world, accounted for most of the response. The Red Cross arrived in force, with none other than Clara Barton at the helm. U.S. military forces were dispatched to Galveston, but in fact local civilian authorities had managed to keep order. Rumors of atrocities, such as theft of victim’s jewelry, were rife but as best anyone can tell were unfounded. Strong community ties that transcended race held Galveston together.

Katrina Could Have Been Much Worse

Needless to say I watched coverage of the advance of the storm and its aftermath with deep interest. During the tail-end of my research for Isaac’s Storm some seven years ago I polled half a dozen of the leading hurricane experts who all agreed that one day a hurricane could again cause mass death. Number one on each expert’s list of nightmares was New Orleans. And there, on CNN and the Weather Channel, was the storm of their nightmares, seemingly headed for a direct impact in New Orleans. It was very strange. This may sound strange, but New Orleans got off relatively easy. Had Katrina maintained her Category 5 strength and struck New Orleans head on, those thousands of body bags might in fact have been necessary.

Media Coverage

Clearly New Orleans is a big story. A good portion of the city was flooded after the two breaks occurred in the city’s protective levee network, and the events in the Superdome provided an easy focus for reporters and producers. But as best I can tell—and again, I know only what I read and see in press coverage—the most severe, head-on damage from Katrina was inflicted in Gulfport and Biloxi and surrounding coastal areas. From time to time the networks did provide aerial video of these areas, and the damage was appalling, with great mounds of debris massed at the point where the storm surge halted. Those images very much evoked for me Galveston and the terror so many Galvestonians faced as the storm surge advanced. Based on Galveston’s experience, I would expect that recovery teams will find quite a few more dead among these debris basins as the weeks wear on.

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