Katrina’s Lessons for Virginia

It may be weeks before we know the full extent of the catastrophe that Katrina has unleashed upon the Gulf Coast, but it’s not too soon to start thinking about the implictions for Virginia. None of our cities, thankfully, are situated below sea level, but large chunks of Hampton Roads sit only a few feet above the water line. We need to start asking, just how vulnerable is this metropolitan area, home to one fifth of the state’s population, to a hurricane of Katrina proportions? And what should we do about it?

An excellent starting point for thinking about these questions is an October 2001 article in Scientific American, Drowning New Orleans, which prophesied the New Orleans tragedy with horrifying clarity. Over the past century, the building of dikes, levies and channels to protect the city disrupted the flow of Mississippi River sediment that replenished the bayou, resulting in the widespread erosion of wetlands and barrier islands. As a consequence, New Orleans lost its natural barriers to the 20-foot storm surge. (Kudos to blogger “Subpatre” for bringing this to my attention.)

Thanks to the efforts of the Nature Conservancy, our Eastern Shore coastline remains largely intact. But development has been extensive along the Virginia Beach coastline. I can’t imagine that Virginia Beach is anywhere near as vulnerable as New Orleans — but could it be as vulnerable as Biloxi? How are our natural buffers faring? What impact are the sand replenishment programs having?

The other question we must ask: If a Force 5 hurricane bore down on Hampton Roads, could the million inhabitants of Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Cheseapeake/Portsmouth be evacuated? The scenes of gridlock on the Interstates leading out of New Orleans are not reassuring. Hampton Roads leaders have been pushing for a “third crossing” to the Peninsula, citing hurricane evacuation as one of the justifications. I have long opposed tax increases for the purpose of congestion mitigation in the region because I think there are so many other less expensive alternatives to building more roads. But I can’t think of any other way to evacuate one million people from Hampton Roads. In light of the New Orleans tragedy, the third crossing is looking more and more like a necessary investment.

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  1. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    A Third Crossing helps the Port of Virgnia and rail traffic as well as taking a lot of trucks off the Hampton Roads bridge tunnel. It would move folks from The Peninsula to Southside or Southside to The Peninsula – and really neither need to go that way during a hurricane. Better to go by land west, north and south.

    When I was the Vice Chair of the kNOw Campaign I looked at the analysis used by the Yes! folks. The traffic on the bridges – if tolled – will pay most of the bill for a Third Crossing. If the Port kicks in the share they once indicated (>$100m) and you use some of the VA Transportation Trust (not to mention Fed money) you can do it.

    Third Crossing is a wonderful idea, but not through a sales tax to an unelected Regional Government with no oversight.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Good thing I was sitting down when I read that. I really thought the evacuation issue would be paramount in the 2002 sales tax-bond campaign, but the results in Hampton Roads were even more negative than in Northern Virginia. I agree with JAB that the whole proposal had real problems, given the underlying lack of trust that was exposed like a festering wound. I think the last TWO hurricane seasons may have had some impact on attitudes in the region. I’m at least thankful it has got you thinking about it, Jim. Some of us arguing for better transporation are not just shilling for developers or trying to pave every forest.

  3. Will Vehrs Avatar

    I’d like to see a third crossing, but if we approved it today, years would pass before the first of the last SUVs sold would drive over it.

    It’s still hurricane season.

    Let’s say a storm comes up and an evacuation order is given.

    Are people are on their own?

    Are “shelters’ predesignated for various contingencies for routes north, south and west? In other words, is the Richmond Civic Center a designated shelter if Richmond isn’t expected to be hit, too? If Richmond is in the expected path, too, where are other natural shelter locations? How many people are expected? Where are the cots and water and other supplies stored for that number stored? What if more than expected show up?

    What if traffic jams or wrecks bring traffic to a standstill at one or all of the critical I-64 junctions with 295 and 95?

    Are plans for all these contingencies and more in place? Do more than a handful of people know them? Are these plans flexible enough to withstand significant changes in the assumptions underlying them?

    Hampton Roads could be the next Biloxi. But if a storm doesn’t hit this year, or next, are we going to still be energized by emergency planning?

  4. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Will, someone is doing the work you indicate needs to be done. But more important is the organization, command and control, leadership and training of the folks in charge.

    Ike said the Normandy invasion was planned in excruciating detail for over 2 years. The plan was worthless on day 2. But the planning work paid off.

    The planning means you think through all the ‘what if’ questions. Then, when reality happens, you respond. Usually, but not always, the better the planning the better the ability to flex in response.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    On the radio tonight I heard an astute comment. The guest said that authorities did the right thing in ordering an evacuation of New Orleans, because they new the levies were disigned for a category three storm and they were faced with a category five.

    They made a mistake though, he said, because they forgot that a hundred thousand people did not have access to cars.

  6. 1) The hurricane was ‘5’ for a brief time, but NOAA says: Although Katrina weakend before landfall, the Category 4 hurricane’s fierce winds…. [Emphasis added]

    2) Nobody forgot about people without cars. Part II, Section B, paragraph 5 of the Louisiana Emergency Operations Plan (supplement 1A) covering the New Orleans region states, “School and municipal buses, government-owned vehicles, and vehicles provided by volunteer agencies may be used to provide transportation for individuals who lack transportation and require assistance in evacuating.” [Emphasis added]

    It’s not “astute” when someone doesn’t have a clue about the facts, but insists on talking anyway.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    There may have been heavy traffic on I10, but it wasn’t gridlock. My sister escaped that way. People got out and they were not trapped on the roads. Counterflow should have been handled better, but people with cars did get out.

    The fact that about 50,000-100,000 people did not have cars was well known, was in the disaster plan and was even in the freaking NEWSPAPER in 2002 – see http://www.nola.com, look under “Washing Away.” Let me repeat – the need to bus people was in the disaster plan and in the NEWSPAPER in 2002.

    When I heard they were being sent to the Superdome, I asked why they weren’t being sent out of town – and I’m not a disaster management specialist. What happened from there was horrible, but predictable and in fact predicted. It should have been PREVENTED.

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