Saturday, September 17, 2005

Hurricane Forecasters Got it Right, But the AP Gets the Story Wrong

Much has been reported and written about hurricane Katrina and the poor response from government at all levels. The president has even accepted responsibility for the shortcomings of the federal government, but as written about in this space previously, the real tragedy was the inability or unwillingness of local officials to implement their own well-documented emergency plan and evacuate those people who could not get out themselves.

Much has also been made, especially by those opposed to everything the president does and says, to his comment that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breech of the levees." In an otherwise good article about the accuracy of the hurricane forecasters, John Pain of the Associated Press writes,
"The performance by the two agencies calls into question claims by President Bush and others in his administration that Katrina was a catastrophe that no one envisioned."

For example, Bush told ABC on Sep. 1 that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." In its storm warnings, the hurricane center never used the word "breached." But a day before Katrina came ashore Aug. 29, the agency warned in capital letters: "SOME LEVEES IN THE GREATER NEW ORLEANS AREA COULD BE OVERTOPPED."

Note that the president says "breached", whereas the warnings Mr. Pain cites warns of levee "overtopping". "Breaching" and "overtopping" are not the same thing. Breaching refers to a hole or break in the integrity of the levee, while overtopping describes the water level rising above the top of the levee, but not the failure of the levee itself. The distinction between the two is crucial to the crux of this article.

The article does go on to cite dire warnings given to the administration by the director of National Hurricane Center, but fails to cite specific sources or quotations. It makes one wonder if specific warnings about "levee breaches" or "levee failures" were ever actually given. If such evidence were available, I would think Mr. Pain would have cited references.

I will give Mr. Pain credit for adding, albeit at the very end of the article, the fact that the National Hurricane Center director took the unusual step of personally calling "the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin two days ahead of time to warn them about the monstrous hurricane."

Unfortunately, most of the blame for the slow response to the disaster continues├é—from the left, anyway├é—on the president, when the mayor and governor had ample warning to get the residents out two days before the hurricane struck.


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