September 13, 2005
University professors explain the cause and ongoing difficulties of the hurricane's destruction
By Kingson Man Daily Science Reporter
In the days following one of the worst natural disasters to strike
American soil, national media outlets portrayed Hurricane
Katrina as a two-fold-story: juxtaposed on top of the images of
human suffering was the commentary track of bureaucratic malfea-
As the empirical work of determining what exactly happened and
what caused such massive damage is being undertaken by profession-
als and academics alike.
Versed in the language of storm surges, load failures and the Saf-
fir-Simpson Hurricane scale, University scientists have offered their
insights on Hurricane Katrina and the damage that has followed in
"According to our models, we are only halfway through this year's
hurricane season," was the first thing on Perry Samson's mind, a pro-
fessor in the department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Scienc-
es. "We expect more, some of which could be the size of Katrina."
"The power of a hurricane is almost entirely a function of how
warm the ocean is beneath it," Samson said. Having had all summer
to warn up, the Gulf of Mexico and other large bodies of water are
only now reaching their peak temperatures.
"All their energy comes from water that is evaporating off the
ocean, so the warmer the water is, the stronger the hurricane will
be," Samson said.
our models, we
are only halfway
professor of atmo-
spheric, ceanic and
0 space sciences
Katrina itself was an uncom-
monly large hurricane. While
originally thought to be a mod-
erate storm that would track
up the Florida panhandle, the
inconstant Gulf Stream winds
pushed it into the Gulf of Mex-
ico, where it lingered, building
up energy and gathering inten-
By that time Hurricane
Katrina had reorganized itself
into a much fiercer beast,
placing it between a four and
a five on the Saffir-Simpson
scale, which rates hurricanes
from one to five based on wind
The other metric used on
hurricanes is based on the area
of land they cover. "At that
point it was the fourth largest hurricane in terms of size in Gulf
history," Samson said. When it crashed into the Gulf coast, Katrina
stretched all the way from Florida to Texas.
At that point, the coastal buildings bore the brunt of wind speeds
of about 140 to 150 miles per hour. Most modern buildings are
designed to withstand winds of up to 145 miles per hour, according
to James Wight, a University professor of civil and environmental
"The modern high-rises did okay, but it was the low-rise, nonengi-
neered buildings that did suffer," Wight said. "The tide coming in the
front end of the hurricane did wipe out a lot of wood structures."
Wight added the incoming force of water, or hydraulic surge, was
what wreaked much coastal damage in states such as Mississippi.
The devastation of hydraulic surge is compounded during times of
high tide, and Katrina was so massive and so slow moving that "both
low and then high tide occurred as the thing was moving on shore,"
As thentide surged in, "water ... pushed into New Orleans and lake
Ponchartrain," Samson said. At that p .ittbeoi-y thing keepi'back
the lake's waters from pouring into the adjoining New Orleans was a
300-mile network of levees.
"If a hurricane makes landfall around that area, the counterclockwise
winds will put a lot of stress on the levees," said Nikolaos-Katopodes,
the chair of the civil and environmental engineering department.
"The levees were upgraded back in 1965 to withstand a level-three
hurricane," Katopodes said.
, "It was clear there was a plan in place to increase the level of protec-
tion, which would have required an increase in levee height," Steven
Wright, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said..
"The levee was constructed of a concrete wall on top of an earth-
built levee," Wright said. "My understanding is that one failure was in
major part caused by the impact of a barge with the levee itself."
And yet, along those 300 miles, "only three points, the weakest
points, failed in the levee system," Katopodes said.
As widespread and visible as the current damage is, scientists are
wary to draw too many conclusipps from this single disaster.
"To sayhty particular storm'was. sa big because of global warming
is a stretch," Samson said.
Which is not to say that there weren't other long-term factors
"Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S.
'infrastructure a report card," Katopodes explained. "For the last five
years, the country has gotten a 'D' ."
"It's the basic maintenance issue ... It was clear there was a plan in
place to increase the level of protection, but the government had other
priorities," Wright said.
The prediction of the hurricane was state of the art, you couldn't have
wished for anything better," Katopodes said. "It's absolutely scary."
"They knew how tall the levees were, they ran the models, they
knew what would happen if this kind of storm came in," Samson said.
"What are we gambling with next?"
From mold toienti fying the dead,
recovery efforts face challenges
By Michael Kan Daily Science Editor
With the hurricane recovery effort still in
its early stages, University professors,
who are experts in the field, anticipate
authorities and hurricane evacuees will find a rotten
landscape plagued by sewage and disease.
Contamination and disease
Technically, the entire city of New Orleans is
contaminated says Rolf Deininger, professor of
environmental health sciences.
"People need to get out of there as soon as
possible," he added.
After the sewage waters flooded the city,
Deininger said New Orleans became a cesspool
that will need to be decontaminated to render it
Deininger, an expert on water contamina-
tion who has studied the effects of disasters on
sanitation systems, said along with the sewage
entering the flood waters, the water pipeline
system may have became contaminated.
JiYoung Lee, a research investigator at the
environmental health sciences department who
works with Deininger, said because New Orleans
lost electricity with the hurricane, there would
have been no way to power the water pressure
that prevents the sewage water from mixing
with the drinkable water in the pipelines.
"Now you have to flush the entire system,"
Lee said. "You have to clean all the pipes."
Lee added that many of the hurricane evacu-
ees still residing in the city have weak immune
systems because of the dire living conditions.
With temperatures and humidity high, bacte-
ria will easily be able to grow, putting evacu-
ees at high risk of infectious disease, Lee said.
Along with the bacteria, she added that people
who are remaining the city could be easily
infected from the toxic substances emanating
from the sewage in the flood waters.-
Deininger and Lee are also working to
improve a technique that allows them to detect
bacteria in water within 5 minutes. Current
records and DNA. Despite these techniques,
neither may prove to be of use to the identifica-
"The problem with both of them is that all
identification is comparison. Now there are no
more postmortem records. They were washed
away," Gobetti said, adding that many of the
dental offices that housed the dental records of
hurricane victims were destroyed in the flood-
Gobetti also said many of the hurricane vic-
tims were from low-income families that may
have never been able to afford appointments
with their local dentist, meaning they may not
have dental records.
Comparing the disaster to Sept.11 Gobetti
said, the deaths from the terrorist attack were
in an isolated area. The deaths from Hurricane
Katrina spread across hundreds of miles, and
for this reason many bodies may be misreported
as an unrelated hurricane fatality.
And as the bodies continue to decompose,
Gobetti said having family or friends identify
bodies will become nearly impossible.
"All the way around, its going to be terrible,'
Other ways to identify dead bodies are to use
fingerprints, find identification in the clothing
or place the dead as the residents of the homes
they are found in.
But Gobetti said, "I'm almost willing to bet
we won't be able to identify all the bodies. The
bodies will be too badly destroyed."
If that is true, many families may have diffi-
culties moving on with their lives not only emo-
tionally, but also financially.
"If it's a relative and you don't have a death
certificate you can't settle life insurance polic-
es," Gobetti said.
"You can't remarry. You can't get social secu-
rity payments. There are so many legal ramifi-
cations with a death certificate."
The threat of mold
While the hurricane displaced thousands of
University research investigator JiYoung Lee
explains how she can detect bacteria in water
samples with a new technique she is developing.
the hurricane, Roth fears that entire neighbor-
hoods may have become infested with mold.
Not only will this cause physical damages to the
inside of buildings, but could also cause aller-
gic reactions if inhaled because mold spores are
Sneezing, runny noses and skin rashes are
some of the common symptoms if a person
breathes in mold spores for an extended period
But the young and elderly, along with people
who have weak immune systems, may develop
more severe symptoms like asthma attacks or
heart conditions that could be life threatening.
"What happens if they go back to those areas
and remain in those enclosed spaces? Roth
asked. "The mold is growing and they would be
breathing in a lot mold spores. People with pre-
existing allergies and asthma, their symptoms
would be exacerbated by that," he added.
Mold takes time to develop Roth said, so he
does not anticipate it will become an important
issue in the shortterm.
A watercraft leaves a long wake through a neighborhood just south of
the University of New Orleans.