Sunday marked the one thousand and one hundredth day since Maitri Venkat-Ramani and her husband evacuated their home in New Orleans in advance of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wrought in that city and around the Gulf Coast. Now just over three years later on this final day of August, they departed the Big Easy again, this time just ahead of Hurricane Gustav.
The seventh named storm of the 2008 Atlantic Hurricane season had already battered its way across the western Carribean before turning northwards through the Gulf of Mexico, when it triggered massive evacuations from New Orleans and around coastal Louisiana amidst vivid memories of Katrina and the disastrous emergency response to it. Despite fears that Gustav posed similar risks, the city was ultimately spared the kind of levee breaches and subsequent flooding and destruction on the scale that occurred three years ago, though heavy rains and the storm surge have not been kind elsewhere in Louisiana.
That's not to say Hurricane Gustav has not been a significant challenge for New Orleans and its citizens, including Venkat-Ramani. A geophysicist involved in the search for oil and gas reservoirs beneath the seafloor in the Gulf, she is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin- Madison, the president of the New Orleans chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association and member of the alumni board for the university's geology department. She is also an avid and well-read New Orleans blogger, having covered the impact and implications of Katrina and subsequent storms since first having to evacuate over 1100 days ago.
Shortly after Katrina struck and her escape to Houston, Venkat-Ramani published an open letter to Madison on The Daily Page about that storm while New Orleans remained mostly under water. Over this last weekend in advance of Hurricane Gustav, she also published an essay in the British newspaper The Independent about this latest challenge to the city.
Departing New Orleans on Sunday morning several hours after the mandatory evacuation was called, Venkat-Ramani and her husband drove ten hours to Birmingham, Alabama, and responded via email to a series of questions from The Daily Page on Monday afternoon. Her thoughts on life in New Orleans between hurricanes, the Gustav experience, the Gulf energy industry, and more follow.
How has life in New Orleans changed for you in the three years since Hurricane Katrina?
Venkat-Ramani:Not much. After six months in Houston post-Katrina, I was able to go back to my unflooded house. Life in New Orleans has been pretty uneventful for me, except for a sharp rise in crime in previously safe neighborhoods. Recovery has been slow in the devastated parts of the city, however, and this is a constant cause for concern to all New Orleanians.
Since Hurricane Katrina, what were your thoughts on the likelihood of another storm of this intensity landing so close to the city during your time there?
We lucked out during the last two seasons. Hurricanes will always be a threat to the Gulf Coast, the real question is how prepared will we be for them and by when?
What part of New Orleans do you live in? Do you know anything yet about the effects of Hurricane Gustav on your neighborhood?
I live in the Lower Garden District on the unflooded "sliver by the river." While I haven't been able to get in touch with my next-door neighbor who stayed behind, I expect that the neighborhood has suffered a power outage and that there is a lot of debris to be cleaned up. We hope our house hasn't suffered structural damage, but we won't know until we get back.
How have you prepared for the possibility of another major hurricane hitting the city?
Hurricane Katrina didn't hit the city. The federally built levees could not withstand Category 5 storm surge and failed in many places. Flood and wind damage are two different things. I know that my neighborhood will not flood, but severe wind damage is a serious possibility. Therefore, the only preparation in my mind is to purchase a truck, evacuate the city in that truck with important belongings and to hope for the best.
How would you evaluate the city's, state's, and federal government's actions in preparing for and conducting the evacuations in advance of this hurricane?
We had a pretty top-notch evacuation three years ago, but every other service was woefully lacking. This time, I'd rate the federal, state and city response as much better. Our new governor has done pretty well by us this time around and the concern at the federal and city levels is commendable. But understand that anything is better than the pathetic preparation for Katrina and the horrific response during the Flood. I've heard from many evacuating northeast towards Mississippi, however, that contraflow towards the north and east didn't work very well this go-around. This is something to examine closely and soon, given that Storm 9 is in the Atlantic and probably heading for us.
How did this situation feel similar or different to that in advance of Hurricane Katrina?
No one expected what happened in the wake of Katrina. This time, most Southern Louisianans dropped any notions of invincibility and evacuated with almost a certainty that the levees and pumps would fail again. The preparation, emotions and logistics are very different this time around.
What are your thoughts on how this storm may affect the energy industry in the Gulf of Mexico?
As an oil-industry geophysicist, I feared for the shallow and deepwater platforms directly in the path of Gustav. Those who want to open up the Gulf of Mexico to more drilling should remember that we did suffer spillage during Hurricane Katrina, shut-ins during Gustav and that active hurricane seasons pose a threat to the stability of exploration and production in this region. To hang our hats on this shaky resource ought to be a matter of national concern.
Knowing the effects of Hurricane Gustav so far, how do you think it will impact the ongoing rebuilding of the city? Ultimately, what do you think are the prospects for the long term health of the city in the face of regular dangerous storms necessitating mass evacuations?
That is a question for any major city along the Gulf coast. New Orleanians know that hurricanes and attendant storm surge are risks of living in New Orleans and continue to live there (after raising their houses) in the hopes that we will soon have adequate levee and pumps protection. But, there are those for whom reliving Katrina is too much, emotionally and financially. Evacuating is a stressful experience and how many want to go through it over and over again?
After spending life savings and more recovering from Hurricane Katrina, an evacuation has to be increased stress on wallet, mind and heart. Again, it appears at this time that New Orleans got out of Gustav unscathed, so people may be able to come back quickly and without too much trouble.
What message do you have for Madisonians regarding the hurricane?
Drink them on a glass or watch them on TV, but don't ride them out! Jokes aside, flood protection is a serious matter, especially given the massive Midwestern floods from earlier this year. Our nation's flood protection infrastructure suffers -- Gustav is another nasty reminder of how far we have to go in protecting our people and restoring their faith in this nation's ability to prevent and recover from disaster.
Maitri and her husband plan on either returning to New Orleans early Tuesday pending the situation after the passage of Hurricane Gustav and the level of access to the city. Ongoing reports about the remnants of this storm and its effects around Louisiana and beyond is being detailed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and New Orleans meteorologist Bob Breck, and continuing coverage about multiple tropical systems developing around the Atlantic Ocean is being provided by the National Hurricane Center and Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground. More information about the situation in New Orleans and Louisiana can be found in a blog by Gambit Weekly and at NOLA.com.