Chris Mooney reports on the ignored warnings of scientists and engineers prior to Hurricane Katrina.

ophelia.jpg Hurricane Ophelia on September 10, 2005, captured by the Expedition 11 crew aboard the International Space Station.  Courtesy of NASA

From the DEC/JAN 2006 issue of Seed:

Scientists spend their entire careers investigating natural processes, uncovering causes, predicting effects and unraveling the complexities of systems that insurers might call Acts of God. It’s about time our political leaders started listening.

“I don’t like being right about this.”
So came the email from Al Naomi, explaining why he was too damn busy to talk to me for this column. I forgive him entirely, of course: Not only does Naomi work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, and therefore has his hands full at the moment, but pre-Katrina, he was pushing for a study of how to bring the city’s hurricane protections up to Category 5 levels. That’s what Naomi doesn’t like being right about: the imminence of disaster. That’s why, now, he’s “up to his eyeballs” in work. (Better than in water, but still.)

Naomi wasn’t quite as busy a year ago, when he and another engineer, Joseph Suhayda (formerly of Louisiana State University), took turns driving me around the city to point out its various vulnerabilities. We even drove by the infamous 17th Street Canal, where a levee would break and flood the city. I jotted down their ideas for ways to save my hometown—some of which, like Suhayda’s “community haven” plan, sound brilliant in retrospect: He’d wanted to quickly install massive concrete walls through the center of New Orleans—like the bulkhead on a ship—so that if a levee failed, at least part of the city would remain dry. At the time, people were very critical of the idea; they’re not so critical any more.

Doomed to know the future, unable to do anything about it, tortured by being right—Naomi and Suhayda are modern-day Cassandras. A bit of their complex even rubbed off on me as I spoke with them. Galvanized by the nightmares they predicted, last year I started pitching a major feature article about their big ideas for saving New Orleans—a proposal that I couldn’t get any magazines to take seriously.

I don’t like being right about that story.

Post-Katrina, our 21st-century Cassandras are bearing their fair share of mythic misery. And we, the public, though we bore the brunt of a catastrophe we could have done much more to protect against, have an obligation to the scientists who got something very essentially right when it mattered, yet were ignored. It is up to us to prevent other foreseeable catastrophes in the future by holding those responsible accountable for their ignorance. This is not a time to disregard science; we have to slash the ranks of Cassandras before their identities are forged in tragedy.

Journalists are taking another look at disaster preparedness across the county (and around the world), consulting scientists and helping to give us a clear picture of the risks that we may be facing. It’s a necessary endeavor, and yet also a paradoxical one: It’s possible these prognosticators will help prevent disaster; but they, too, may be doomed to become Cassandras—of a journalistic, rather than scientific, breed—thanks to Hurricane Katrina.

And despite Katrina, many warnings are still going unheeded. Consider that in the wake of the disaster in New Orleans, certain political leaders and heads of agencies have tried to keep an entirely legitimate—if also controversial—subject off the table. I am referring, of course, to the question of whether ongoing global warming might already be fueling more intense hurricanes, and much more importantly, whether it will do so in the future.

This concern does not arise from nowhere. Rather, it’s an entirely logical extension of basic thermodynamics and global-warming theory, which predict that a warmer planet will have a more vigorous hydrologic cycle and experience stronger storms. Insurers such as Lloyd’s of London have been looking into this issue for a decade. Warm oceans, after all, are the “jet fuel that drives the hurricane’s turbine,” as Time magazine put it recently. And we know that, along with the planet, the oceans are warming—not to mention rising (which is another, related issue).

True, it’s scientifically impossible to say that global warming did or didn’t cause a particular storm, and no one has demonstrated the total number of storms ought to increase or decrease under a global warming scenario. But the number of storms isn’t the only issue. Scientists are now looking at the historical record of the strengths of hurricanes and detecting a correlation with warming that is so strong as to make it extremely unlikely that anything besides global warming is the cause. And that’s not something to be ignored.

Recent research published in Science and Nature has reported that tropical cyclones are growing more powerful and damaging, and have suggested, albeit tentatively, that in their force we may already be seeing the effects of global warming at work. Combined with basic global warming theory, this ought to be more than enough evidence to prompt a serious and timely discussion of the hurricane-climate question.

Despite this research, certain key people here in the U.S. want to avoid the discussion altogether. National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield, for instance, has been unable to present an accurate reflection of the science on this issue: He brusquely dismissed a global warming–hurricane connection in testimony before Congress, without acknowledging that major studies on this topic are now emerging in leading scientific journals.

Some media outlets have been even worse. The editorial page of USA Today, for example, chided those who would “exploit a tragedy to score political points and advance their agendas” by linking global warming and hurricanes. The paper then based much of its debunking on the opinion of William Gray, a Colorado State University hurricane expert. But the paper failed to inform its readers of an important disclaimer: Gray doesn’t even think humans are causing global warming in the first place, a clear outlier position in the scientific community.

And then, of course, there are the global warming contrarians’ think tanks. In October, the George C. Marshall Institute, famous for its skepticism about the severity of global warming and its criticisms of climate modeling, held an event at the National Press Club arguing (according to its billing) that “there is no scientific support for a correlation between hurricane intensity and global warming.” The papers in Nature and Science, apparently, don’t count as scientific support. Neither does climate change theory, evidence for which has been pouring in for decades.

All of this is probably what we ought to expect, given how politicized the basic global warming debate itself has been in the United States for the past fifteen years. But in the wake of Katrina, and in the name of its Cassandras, can’t we do a little better?

There are, to be sure, other factors that feed into our hurricane vulnerability: Poor infrastructure. Building—and properly insuring!—homes in places subject to repeated floods and storm surges. Damaging the environment in other ways—in the New Orleans case, eroding wetlands—has also raised the risk for an already vulnerable area. All of these factors matter. But none of them mean that global warming doesn’t matter. It’s part of the picture too, and is likely to become more so in the future. And we have been warned.

Originally published December 19, 2005


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM