The Road To Katrina

After parking the truck, I walk down a side street marveling at how much fire equipment is within sight. One guy passes me and says "Welcome to the world's largest fire station!" and he isn't joking.

Editors Note: An excerpt from this article appears in the September issue of Firehouse Magazine.

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I remember sitting in front of the television with the rest of the world, watching the scene slowly unfold along the Gulf Coast. Everyone knew that the storm was one of the strongest ever, attaining Category 5 with winds, at one point, reaching 175 miles per hour. We all knew that despite the storm weakening slightly just before making landfall, it was nevertheless one bound for the record books.

Even when it was still out in the Gulf after crossing southern Florida, lazily gaining strength and momentum, it had a certain ominous feel to it, a foreboding aura of invincibility (like that of a PeterBuilt 18-wheeler barreling down an interstate overpass at 90 plus), dispensing a chill out ahead of itself - a bone penetrating chill that pierced the oppressive heat and humidity of a typical gulf summer season. This one just felt as if it was truly going to be "the big one"...and it was. It would be a storm to remember. Her name was Katrina.

Once the storm reached major hurricane status and the mayor of New Orleans began pleading for residents to evacuate and to take this tropical system seriously as it began to paint a bulls-eye on this famous party town, you just knew it was going to be ugly. As I intermittently checked weather reports over the weekend to monitor the progress of what was quickly becoming the perfect pinwheel, I recalled reading an excellent book this same time of the season, some four years ago titled Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson. It is a very well written chronicle of the Great Hurricane of 1900, which struck Galveston, TX, on Sept. 8.

Without the benefit of satellite, radar and computerized tracking technology, the storm approached the Texas barrier island rather unexpectedly, catching the local population off-guard. By the time they had grasped the enormity of the unfolding calamity, it was too late to leave.

A train entering the city was swept out to sea by the rapidly rising storm surge, which measured approximately 15 feet, taking 85 men, women and children with it. Others who survived by fleeing the train and taking refuge in a nearby lighthouse with island residents were chased up the internal spiral staircase with each surge of the relentless killer tide lapping at its formidable base. Waves the size of houses swept in from the Gulf, swamping the island habitat. A wave 50 feet long and 10 feet high has a static weight of over 80,000 pounds. Moving at 30 MPH, it generates forward momentum of over 2 million pounds. People's homes disintegrated, leaving almost half the city in ruins and the remainder heavily damaged.

It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people lost their lives to the storm, with at least two-thirds of those deaths occurring on Galveston Island. The remainder were taken by flood waters ravaging inland tributaries, as an octopus' tentacles reaches for its prey. In Galveston, thousands of bodies were buried at sea, only to have them wash ashore in the following days. With no means of disposal, those and thousands more were then burned in funeral pyres for weeks on end, amid the wreckage of a city destroyed.

The smell that settled over the city was overpowering to the survivors, permeating every breath with the scent of a day gone terribly awry. At the time of the storm, the barometric pressure read 28.48 inches of mercury - the lowest ever recorded. Years later, scientists with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) readjusted the official reading to be an astonishing 27.49 inches. Wind gusts were thought to be up around 200 miles an hour, generating pressures of 152 pounds per square foot. Sustained winds were estimated at 150 MPH, brushing category 5 status.

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