“Certain death” warned one bureaucrat who cared to do the job right

As Hurricane Katrina returns to our television screens and computer monitors this week for the storm’s 10th anniversary, so do looks back at what went wrong: levees inadequately designed and built, leaders who failed to respond, shelter trailers wafting toxic fumes. Some of those failures remain risks today.

Patients and staff of the Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans are evacuated by boat after flood waters surrounded the facility (AP Photo/Bill Habert)

Patients and staff of Memorial Medical Center are evacuated. (AP Photo/Bill Habert)

But as a lesson to others, it’s worth remembering one important thing the government did right.

Ten years ago Saturday, Katrina made landfall on Mississippi and Louisiana.  A day beforehand, August 28, 2005, the National Weather Service issued an unusual bulletin.

Here’s a taste:

“MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL…LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED…

“…POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.”

It included the words “CERTAIN DEATH.”

Government bulletins don’t usually sound like that.

It had no problem making the news. No one knows for sure how many lives it saved, but after hearing that it’s hard to imagine anyone in New Orleans still on the fence about whether to evacuate, if they could.

Forecaster Robert Ricks wrote it. He said in an interview with the AJC this week that it all felt routine at first.  He was using a computer program that selects pre-written statements to match with forecasted weather conditions; then the forecaster reads the suggestions and makes changes.

“Once the software popped up the canned statements, that’s when it started getting interesting,” Ricks said.  “It takes a certain kind of individual to have the fortitude to say, ‘Yes, I can live with this.'”  Reading statement after statement, he decided they were justified.

It started to dawn on him that peoples’ reactions would run the gamut.  After he pushed the button, “That did come along, ‘What did I just do.'”

Some colleagues later told him they wouldn’t have been able to write it like that.

The interesting thing is the bulletin was technically far from perfect. It focused mainly on wind, and did not foresee that levee breaches and flooding would be the primary catastrophe for New Orleans. So how important was that? The bulletin did convey a message: Get out.

Some have called it “wrong for the right reasons.”    Someone in a government bureaucracy stuck his neck out, and got people’s attention.  The computer program has since become more widely used at the weather service, Ricks said.

“One moving email I got was from a woman here in Slidell,” Ricks added.  “Her neighbor was poking fun of her while she was packing up the car.  He was crying when she came back.” In the email, “she was saying, ‘Thanks for the warning.  That’s what ultimately decided me to go.'”

Read the whole bulletin here, on p. 18.  Here’s an after-action interview with the bulletin’s author, forecaster Robert Ricks.

—Ariel Hart, ahart@ajc.com


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