New Orleans 10 years after Katrina; Christchurch 5 years since 04 September


On this day Hurricane Katrina came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 3 (nearly Category 4)storm. It is the day this storm whacked into New Orleans and caused the costliest natural disaster in American history. With hurricanes being an annual issue, the Gulf of Mexico nations and the coastal states of the U.S. are well versed in hurricanes. Several days before Hurricane Katrina hit, it was being tracked in the Caribbean. The city of New Orleans had sufficient warning and most people left the city after a mandatory evacuation order was imposed, due the track of the hurricane having a 29% probability of crossing the city and its low lying geography. The Louisiana Super Dome was opened up  as a refuge of last resort for those who had no means of leaving or nowhere to go.  It was hit by a huge storm surge of about 8.5 metres. The failure of the levee system and the associated pumps as the storm surge rose, caused 80% of the city to flood. Around 2/3 of the lives lost are attributable to the levee and pump failure, which works out at around 1200 of the known 1800+ deaths. The cost of Hurricane Katrina financially stands at about U.S.$108 billion.

04 September 2010 is the fifth anniversary of the start of an earthquake sequence in Canterbury, New Zealand that lasted over a year and culminated on 22 February 2011 with the financially most costly disaster in New Zealand history and one of the deadliest. Like the Gulf of Mexico nations and coastal U.S. states with their hurricanes, New Zealand and Christchurch had had previous experience with earthquakes, though certainly not with the same frequency or severity. It was expected that a magnitude 6.0+ aftershock might eventually hit the city and that it could cause significant damage and possibly deaths. What was not expected was a very shallow (5km), closely centred (10km SE from Christchurch)aftershock hitting in the middle of the day with ground shaking that to this day is the highest recorded from an earthquake so close to an urban area (2.2x gravity), which damaged many older buildings beyond repair, induced very severe liquefaction throughout the city and significant lateral spreading.

How America responded to Katrina and how New Zealand responded to the Christchurch earthquakes showed markedly different styles. The scale of the damage from Katrina and the fact that multiple states were affected meant that U.S. relief efforts had to be prioritized. U.S. authorities issued evacuation orders days in advance. Poor decision making at all Government levels contributed to the delays and slowed the significant offers of international relief. For several days following Katrina, there was limited access to the city, and supplies of food, water, medical equipment and other assistance were critically short. The emergency services were caught out by the breaking levees. Some looting broke out.

Christchurch was quite different. The brief emergency period following the earthquake on 04 September 2010 had given the city a vital chance to test its Civil Defence. Perhaps the biggest criticisms were levelled at the Christchurch City Council, which was caught on the hop shifting between its old and new headquarters. It was implicated in the failure to address building safety, by not being sufficiently proactive marking certain buildings as unsafe, which failed on 22 February 2011. Another criticism was levelled at the rapid passage through Parliament of legislation relating to the reconstruction, without an opportunity for it to be scrutinized. The relief effort in Christchurch began immediately with a State of Emergency being declared by the Government, and an appeal for international assistance going out the same day. Singaporean, American, Australian, Japanese and Chinese rescue teams and Australian police were sent to assist. Following the 22 February earthquake, the Central Business District of Christchurch was cordoned off, whilst buildings were made safe. This continued until about July 2013, when the remaining cordons were lifted. Isolated buildings whose future are still uncertain remain.

Fundamentally both cities suffered significant population drops immediately following their respective disasters. Christchurch’s population initially dropped by about 30,000 people, but now appears to have suffered a total long term loss of about 10,000 residents. New Orleans’ population dropped about a quarter following Hurricane Katrina.

Today, both cities have large tracts of abandoned land. In Christchurch 10,000 homes had to be demolished because they were too badly damaged or the land underneath was not suitable for building on.  Major reconstruction of Christchurch’s sewerage, water and roading has had to take place as all suffered heavy damage in the quakes. The insurance companies have been subject to much criticism over their handling of insurance claims that is ongoing. Five years later, some are still trying to get damage from the first earthquake repaired. In New Orleans the damage will take significantly longer to repair, and some parts will never be rebuilt. A social diaspora emerged because some people wanted to go back, but when they approached their social services case manager, they were told their parts of the city would not be rebuilt, and there was a perceived reluctance to rebuild the housing for lower income earners that had existed prior to Hurricane Katrina.

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