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Katrina Plus Ten: Perspectives from Science Labs

October 7, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: Perspectives from Science Labs

Ten years ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.  What followed was a disaster of unparalleled magnitude in recent United States history, an event and its aftermath that forever changed ideas about urban resilience, the relationships between cities and the water bodies on which they are located, the roles of race and class in disaster response, even whether some cities in vulnerable locations should even be restored after disaster struck.  The Mississippi River was almost an afterthought during and immediately after the storm; the river itself did not flood the city and the most damaging levee breaches occurred in other locations.  Nevertheless, we feel that serious, sustained examination of the relationships between communities, water systems, urban space, and lived experience in the 21st century should start with at least a rudimentary examination of Katrina and its aftermath.

This is the sixth of ten blog posts examining crucial facets of the online coverage a decade after the storm.

While the social and economic issues exposed by the hurricane were the primary subjects of the tenth anniversary coverage, popular scientific journalists on the internet made important contributions to the reflections as well. Significant explanations of the effects of soil subsidence, like this article from Climate Central, add a great deal to the more broad-based “wind and water” narrative of the storm’s damaging influences. This piece from Discovery.com also discusses the centrality of land subsidence in assessing the region’s vulnerability to future storms.

This map shows the tracks of all tropical cyclones in the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. The points show the location of each storm at 6-hour intervals.

This map shows the tracks of all tropical cyclones in the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. The points show the location of each storm at 6-hour intervals. via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2005_Atlantic_hurricane_season_summary_map.png

If science, generally speaking, is a way of getting to fairly precise explanations of how the “natural” world works, then this piece from Buzzfeed certainly qualifies. In particular, I think the animation on the second visualization, showing storm tracks crossing the Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, conveys just how volatile the oceans were during the warm-water year of 2005.

Science is also, notoriously, regarded as a source of predictive power; just think of all the folks who say “wait for the science to come in” before taking a policy course of action. Science News has this front covered, and in a more or less hopeful vein, with its story  on how hurricane predictive models have improved in the ten years since Katrina struck. While the Gulf Coast remains vulnerable, and the climate is certainly volatile, better predictions offer hope that damage from “future Katrinas” might be morders of magnitude less than the 2005 storm.

The Huffington Post’s contribution to the discussion received a lot of attention, partly due to the reach of the platform. The subtitle, with its implicit “time to move on” message, is unfortunate, but the article itself is a reasonably straightforward effort to explain that officials in and around New Orleans have made substantial efforts to learn from Katrina and to build more resilient protections for the city and the coast. This article, if read carefully, illustrates how inseparable are the realms of scientific knowledge, cultural practice and belief, and engineering and policy governance.

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