Sunday, August 30, 2015

Hurricane Katrina

Here is a copy of a brief article I wrote on Hurricane Katrina for Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History: A Reference Guide to the Nation's Most Catastrophic Events which was edited by Ballard Campbell and published by Facts on File in 2008.

Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina is the costliest natural disaster in American history. Striking the Gulf States in late August 2005, it affected over 90,000 square miles along the coastal regions of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, including the city of New Orleans. The human cost of the storm is estimated at more than 1,400 deaths. More than 250,000 buildings were destroyed. The economic cost is hard to calculate, but will greatly exceed the $110 billion the federal government pledged to spend in the year following Katrina. Above and beyond the financial and human costs, Hurricane Katrina exacted a high psychological cost on Americans who felt embarrassed by the inability of all levels of government to manage the emergency. Moreover, Katrina reopened the question of race in American society in a dramatic and unexpected way.
Katrina officially became a hurricane on August 24, 2005 near the Bahamas. The following day it moved across Southern Florida between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, causing flood damage, destroying buildings, and killing nine people before it passed out to the Gulf of Mexico as a category one storm. On the Gulf, Katrina gained strength at an astonishing rate. As Katrina grew in intensity, she moved north toward New Orleans. On Friday, August 26, Governor Kathleen Blanco issued a state of emergency for Louisiana. By Saturday it was becoming clear that the storm’s path would take it close, if not directly over, New Orleans. Saturday evening Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, conducted a conference call with Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in which he urged them to issue mandatory evacuations to all areas in Katrina’s path.
Later that evening, Mayor Nagin issued a voluntary evacuation order for New Orleans, and authorities made all lanes of traffic on the interstate highways open to northbound vehicles only. On Sunday, August 28, Katrina was upgraded to a category five hurricane with winds of 170 miles per hour. While over 80 percent of New Orleans’s population of 460,000 followed Mayor Nagin’s advice and evacuated, many of the city’s poorest citizens remained, including the sick and the elderly. As best they could, those left behind migrated to the Superdome or Convention Center, the officially designated shelters of last resort. At 10:00 Sunday morning, after receiving a National Weather Service advisory that predicted severe flooding, Mayor Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation for the entire city. But it was too late. City plans for using school buses and Amtrak trains to evacuate New Orleans were not fully implemented. While some buses ferried citizens to the designated shelters of last resort, the failure of a large number of drivers to report because they had already evacuated or the city to post designated pick up locations greatly blunted the effectiveness of the operation. Neither the Superdome nor the Convention Center was prepared for the onslaught of over 30,000 people that came seeking shelter. Both facilities lacked adequate space, medicine, food, and water.     
Between 2001 and 2005 a number of well publicized disaster scenarios had predicted a massive hurricane that could cause significant flood damage to New Orleans, a city which is mostly below sea-level protected by eighteen feet high levees that held back the canals, Mississippi River, and Lake Ponchartrain. Some of these models, such as the fictional “Hurricane Pam,” bore an eerie resemblance to Katrina. Stories about these scenarios appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles, and National Geographic magazine, among others.  However, complacency gripped many New Orleans residents who had seen several hurricanes, including Ivan in 1998, suddenly change course and skirt past the city. With tourism as the primary industry, Mayor Nagin and city leaders were fearful of scaring off visitors or damaging the economy by issuing a mandatory evacuation.   
At 4:00, Sunday afternoon, the first rain fell in Louisiana and continued all night. On Monday, August 29, the full force of Katrina ripped through coastal Louisiana devastating Plaquemines and St. Barnard Parishes before slamming into New Orleans. Approximately 8 to 10 inches of rain and 120 mile-per-hour winds of Katrina swelled Lake Ponchartrain and overwhelmed the levees, causing them to fail for two reasons.  First, they were overtopped by waves of water stemming from the rain and the high velocity winds. Second, and more serious, the levees breached, or broke open, filling New Orleans like an empty bowl as water from the canals and Lake Ponchartrain poured in. The breeches created surge waves that, measured as high as 17 feet which decimated all in their path and led to rapid flooding. The lower Ninth Ward, the poorest area of New Orleans, quickly lay under 8 feet of water. About 80 percent of the city was flooded during Katrina.  
After hitting New Orleans, Katrina moved north and brought its destructive power to the coastal regions of Mississippi and Alabama. Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi, were both hit hard. In addition to the destruction of homes and businesses all 13 of Biloxi’s casinos were destroyed. Some were thrown off their moorings and moved several blocks by the sheer force of Katrina’s winds.  
Lack of communication between local and federal officials hampered efforts to manage the storm. For example, on National Public Radio Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, the department that oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which handles disaster relief, stated that he had no knowledge of the thousands who were trapped in the New Orleans Convention Center, even though that story had been widely reported the day before by all the major television networks. Two days later President George W. Bush congratulated FEMA head Michael Brown for doing “a great job.” To many it seemed undue praise to a man who bungled the federal rescue operations from the start. With Brown drawing too much heat, President Bush replaced him on September 9 with Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen.
Scenes from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were horrifying, and the nation watched in shock as these events unfolded. The floodwaters rushed in so quickly that many residents could only escape to the upper floors or attics of their homes. Helicopters and boats rescued people trapped on roofs and treetops, sometimes using axes or chainsaws to get to those in attics. Lower floors of hospitals were flooded and patients had to be moved to the upper levels. In St. Bernard Parrish of New Orleans 34 residents at St. Rita’s nursing home were killed by flood waters. Many people were stranded on the overpasses of highways without water, food, or protection from the blazing sun, as temperatures soared into the upper 90s and the humidity level remained above 100 percent. Looting was rampant, but also exaggerated. Rescue workers could not tell if gunshots were snipers, or pleas for help from trapped residents. Floating bodies drifted in the floodwaters. Fearing the worst Mayor Nagin ordered 25,000 body bags, and Governor Blanco announced that the National Guard had authority to shoot looters or those hampering rescue operations on site. Uncontrolled fires, chemical contamination of the flood water, sewage, piles of garbage, rotting bodies, concern for alligators, snakes, and disease all added to the dangerous and toxic environment in the city. Homes were leveled in New Orleans and Mississippi to such an extent that some compared the scene to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Japan after the atomic bombs of August 1945. Rescue workers searched through homes and spray painted the number of bodies found inside on the exterior of the building. Katrina knocked oil refineries, off-shore drilling facilities, and pipelines off line causing a nationwide spike in gasoline prices.
Conditions in the Superdome and Convention Center rapidly deteriorated. With failing electricity, poor ventilation and sanitation, and inadequate supplies, lawlessness prevailed, including cases of assault and rape. White sheets covered the elderly invalids who were found dead in their wheelchairs from want of medical care. While the police department attempted to protect the public good, many officers abandoned the city and did not show up for duty. With little disaster training and breakdown at the highest level of the department, officers on the street were not in a position to provide much help.
On Friday, September 2, the National Guard arrived at the Superdome and Convention Center with food, water, and supplies. Busses followed and mass evacuations began. Evacuees were taken to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Eventually Katrina refugees would be dispersed throughout the United States to such places as Dallas, Texas, Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Denver, Colorado, to name a few. Often it took weeks or months for evacuees to locate friends and family.  
Katrina left as much controversy as destruction in its wake. Immediately questions emerged as to the lack of preparedness. The situation in New Orleans led the city and state officials to blame the federal government for the shortcomings of disaster relief. State officials launched a litany of charges against the Administration of President George W. Bush, including de-funding levee repair, leaving Louisiana without sufficient National Guard troops, and a lack of leadership. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mayor Nagin declared that the city’s plan for the hurricane was to “get the people to higher ground and have the feds and the state airlift supplies to them.” The city, however, had several emergency plans that were never implemented.
The Bush administration and Republicans in Congress responded that the state and city governments did not follow their own emergency plans, and misdirected federal grant money for disaster preparedness.  In fact, all levels of government were overwhelmed. Many Americans asked how national leaders could be so unprepared for a large scale emergency four years after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, among others, questioned the wisdom of rebuilding a city so vulnerable to flooding. Environmentalists called a number of practices into question including the elaborate system of unnatural levees which have destroyed tens of thousands of acres of wetlands that might have buffered the impact of Katrina. President Bush put the matter of re-building to rest on September 15, 2005 when in a televised address to the nation from Jackson Square in New Orleans, he pledged federal assistance to rebuilding from the hurricane.    
Katrina exacerbated racial tensions as well. Nearly 68 percent of New Orleans was black and disproportionately poor. Many blacks felt that they did not get the help they needed from the national government because of their race. President Bush’s publicized trip to the destroyed home of white Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, and his failure to make a similar trip to the devastated areas of New Orleans led many blacks to consider that reconstruction of their homes was at the bottom of the administration’s recovery priorities. 
Controversy plagued other aspects of the federal recovery effort as well. When FEMA provided debit cards valued at $2,000 to over 900,000 victims of Katrina, examples of fraud and mismanagement made headlines across the nation. Suspension of federal contract and wage regulations in favor of large national firms at the expense of local businesses also led many to question federal priorities. Finally, Mississippi, which had more power in the Congress, received disproportionately more in aid than harder hit Louisiana.
The levee breeches were repaired on September 5, and, after seven weeks of pumping, New Orleans was declared dry. While many residents trickled back to their homes, more remained away. Entire neighborhoods in New Orleans and Mississippi remained piles of rubble one year after Katrina hit. Mayor Nagin attempted to lift the spirit of the city by conducting business as normal. In 2006 the Mardi Gras and Jazz Festival celebrations went on according to their normal schedule. Nagin also created the seventeen-member Bring New Orleans Back Commission to build excitement around rebuilding. But with one-quarter the pre-hurricane tax base, one-third the student body in the public schools, power shortages, and tens of thousands not yet returned, Katrina has left a scar that will heal slowly, if at all.   
--Gregory J. Dehler

Further Reading
Brinkley, Douglas. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
Cooper, Christopher and Robert Block. Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security. New York: Times Books, 2006.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Heerden, Ivor van and Mike Bryan. The Storm: What Went Wrong During Hurricane Katrina -- The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist. New York: Viking, 2006.
Horne, Jed. Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City. New York: Random House, 2006.

Syzerhans, Douglas, ed. Federal Disaster Programs and Hurricane Katrina. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2006.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pemmican Empire

Empire of Extinction reminds us that the United States was not the only country that aggressively expanded across great regions of territory to the detriment of wildlife populations. Like the Americans moving west, the Russians driving east labored under the delusion that the vast natural resources in their new domain were inexhaustible.  In a similar way George Colpitts’s masterful Pemmican Empire serves to remind the reader that even a species so identified with one country -- in this case the buffalo – can still have an international history. Of course, the natural range of the species did not stop south of the 49thparallel. Nor did the trade network of the French/English/Natives stop to the north of that imaginary.

There are three ways in which the slaughter of  the buffalo unfolded differently in the north that really stood out to me after reading Pemmican Empire  -- even if the end result was the same: the buffalo was hunted to the point of almost going extinct. 

1.      The most important argument Colpitts makes is that buffalo in Canada were hunted for their pemmican (as the title implies), not their skins. He includes a significant discussion of the nutritional value of pemmican to prove its importance as a source of required calories for human movement west. This high energy, easily transportable food provided the sustenance of Canadian continental conquest. Hunters chasing beavers, farmers, and those simply crossing the vast expanse of the northern prairies on the way to the Pacific coast fueled themselves on pemmican supplied by trading posts. Pemmican was sold east, too, to those in more established provinces, as well as to the Royal Navy. This is at variance with the experience south of the border in which buffalo were killed more for their furs and robes and even some meat, but not pemmican.
2.      The time frame of the experience in Canada is different than in the United States. The great American buffalo hunt really begins after the Civil War, and was perpetrated by white market hunters like the famous Buffalo Bill Cody, and aided by the railroads. In other words, it was an industrialized slaughter on a par with the order Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, although the setting was clearly different. Like the Native Americans, the industrialized American buffalo slaughtering machine made multiple uses of the animal. Even the bleached bones were later collected and ground into fertilizer. On the contrary, events in Canada played out over a longer time period, beginning earlier in the 1790s with the white “discovery” of pemmican and the realization that pemmican could solve the problem of fueling explorers, hunters, and settlers pushing deep into the interior. By the time the transcontinental railroad accelerated the buffalo slaughter in the United States in late 1860s, the killing was winding down in the north. Local populations had been depleted. But pemmican was no longer an essential food supply; agriculture and the railroads supplied the energy needs of the Canadian settlers. 
3.      Native American tribes in Canada were bigger players as market hunters than their counterparts south. British trading posts contracted out to Native Americans to supply buffalo meat for pemmican.  As where Plains Indians to the south lived a largely nomadic existence, pursuing the great herds as needed, those in the north created enormous enclosures called "pounds" that trapped buffalo in a secure enclosure until needed. Soon competition between the tribes led to the destruction of the pens or the use of fire to chase buffalo away from their rival tribes and drive up prices.  

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Irish parish records from 19th century are digitized and online!

The National Library of Ireland has digitized the parish records from the mid-to-late-nineteenth century and
placed them online HERE. This is a great resource for anyone with a genealogical connection to this time in Ireland. Parishes recorded births, marriages, and deaths. As with all Irish genealogical records, they can be frustratingly sketchy, and there are gaps in coverage. Some parish records survived in better condition than others. I still am having a difficult time locating some great-great grandparents in both Galway and Mayo who could not be found in any database. For example, I found my great-grandfather Daniel Folan in the baptism register, but not his wife, my great-grandmother Margaret O'Toole (this is them to the right from their 1896 wedding).  My hope was that I could find her on the hand written manuscript material, but, alas, I have not tracked her down yet. But, I did notice that there are some homeland names (when they are legible and/or recorded at all) from areas outside of the parish, so I am cautiously optimistic I can find her in a neighboring area when I get the time to look for them. Although I have not yet made any earth shattering finds, I been able to get a couple of clues, such as names of sponsors, which could be siblings of the parents. This gives a couple of more leads to investigate in the future. Please let me know if you make any interesting finds in your search for your own ancestors in the NLI parish records.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Empire of Extinction

Ryan Jackson Jones, Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867

As the Russians spread east, across the rim of the North Pacific, from Kamchatka across to the Aleutian Island chain in the 18th and 19th centuries, they created a wave of extermination for the fur-bearing animals of the region. The Russians wiped out huge numbers of sea otters. In fact, the animal never recovered from the hyper-killing of 1749-1750, but it did not go extinct. The same could not be said of the sea cow, which vanished from the earth sometime in the late 1760s. As Jones points out, the sea cow was already in trouble before the fur-greedy Russians showed up and wiped them out. As global temperatures warmed in the aftermath of the little ice age, the sea cow headed north (it had ranged as far south as Baja California), huddling on a cluster of islands in the North Pacific. The last recorded sighting of a sea cow occurred in 1766. It is hard to say when the species went extinct because it would be another thirty years before the Cuvier introduced the idea of animal extinction. In 1802 Martin Sauer postulated that the sea cow had gone extinct within a couple of years of the last confirmed sighting.  

Naturalists were in an uneasy position in the Russian imperial expansion. Mostly made up of non-Russians, they were critical of an empire they considered somewhat mickey mouse. On the other hand, the Russian rulers were their bosses who demanded positive affirmation about the grandeur and vastness of their empire. Wanting to play on the same stage as the French and English, the Russians wanted to appearance of science to give them some enlightenment credibility as a modern state, but they were not terribly interested in hearing what the naturalists had to say. Moreover, the secretive and suspicious Russians did not want scientists in their employ spreading information outside of the borders, clearly demonstrating a lack of understanding of the value of cooperative, transnational science. So much for appearances. Ironically, when the consequences of dramatic fur-bearing population decline were obvious – read, tax revenues from skins shrunk dramatically – conservation measures were implemented without even consulting naturalists.

Like the French and English in east North America, the Russians ensnared native peoples (Yakut, Kamchadal, Aleut) into their market network. The new imperial overlords assessed a tribute to their colonial peoples that was payable in furs. This was only the tip of the iceberg, like every other native population in North America, the people of the North Pacific experienced devastating epidemics with the arrival of Europeans. The Aleuts suffered a 50%-80% mortality from disease. As their population declined and their environment degraded, they became more reliant on the money they made market hunting to feed their families. As fur bearing animals became increasingly difficult to find, Russian overlords sent their native hunters on longer and more dangerous missions, causing yet more stress on their society.

I checked Empire of Extinction out merely to look at how he covered the fur seals of the Pribilof Islands. The cause of the fur seal was close to William T. Hornaday’s heart, and he ardently fought for their protection between1909-1920 against what could be called the scientific establishment led by David Starr Jordan. For more on Hornaday’s fur seal conservation campaign check out The Most Defiant Devil, or his digitized scrapbooks online at the Wildlife Conservation Society.  Despite my initial limited interest in this book, I found Empire of Extinction to be an enjoyable read that really pulled me in, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the environment or wildlife in particular, especially to American historians looking for a little perspective on what was happening outside of our borders.   

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Wright Brothers

If one message comes out clearly in David McCullough’s latest book, Wright Brothers, it is that Wilbur and Orville had balls! They risked their lives trying to master controlled, powered flight, and persisted through betrayal, crashes, failure, ridicule, and skepticism to become the first humans to soar with the birds. Honestly, I knew very little about these inventive brothers prior to reading McCullough’s book – or, I should more accurately state, listened to it on audible. The best feature of the audio book was McCullough’s narration.

The most startling thing for me in this book is that the brothers Wright had very little mechanical background.
They tinkered with things, but had no experience building complex machines or with engines prior to building one from scratch for their airplane. Showing their inexperience, the first one cracked the day they made it, and they had to wait several weeks before receiving another aluminum block from ALCOA to manufacture a second motor.

They knew almost nothing about flight when they started their experiments. Of course, it was a concept in its very infancy, but others around the globe had been working on it. The death of German pioneer aviator Otto Lilienthal in 1896 captivated the Wrights. It seems ironic that a fatality in Europe would draw two bicycle shop owners in Ohio into the risky venture of flight. Having resolved to enter the aviation race, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution to request all the information they could provide. Later they contacted the Weather Bureau to find a perfect location to test their flying machine. They wanted a windy, sandy, out-of-the-way place, which is how they wound up in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Experiments with gliders in Kitty Hawk convinced the brothers Wright that all that had been written before about the “science” of flight had been total bunk. Throwing out the book of knowledge as it existed; they had to reformulate almost every theory about flying. From practical experiments at Kitty Hawk and more theoretical work with a noisy wind tunnel simulator that they created in their Dayton bicycle shop, they discovered that the wings and how they were configured, shaped, and manipulated were the most important aspect of flight. This was their critical contribution to aviation.    

Armed with this information, they returned to Kitty Hawk in 1903 and made their historic flight that is immortalized on the North Carolina license plate, among other places. It was only 12 seconds! With some modifications, they managed to sustain a flight of 59 seconds before packing it up for the year and returning to Dayton. The world took no notice of their accomplishment.  It was their public flights in Ohio, France, New York, Germany, Italy, and around Washington, D.C. between 1904 and 1911 that drew large crowds, press acclimation, and established their fame as pioneer aviators. Along the way they established records for distance and speed, took the first passenger, and later took the oldest person as a passenger (their 80+ year old dad), and the first female (their sister), as well as some celebrities of the day. Less fortunate, they also were involved in the first aviation passenger fatality when Orville crashed one of their flying machines at Fort Myer, Virginia in 1908. The passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge died, and this led to the first accident investigation in aviation history. Orville spent months in recovery.  

The Wright brothers had no wealthy backers. They spent about $1,000 of their own money developing a flying machine. Compare this to Samuel Pierpont Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who enjoyed the backing of the U.S government. Langely spent nearly $70,000 with few tangible results. While the Wrights developed their flier in the obscure setting of Kitty Hawk, N.C., Langely’s public experiments around the nation’s capital generated headlines. McCullough suggests the possibility that the War Department was slow to work with the Wrights (other governments were much more interested) because they felt burned by their experience with Langely.

McCullough shows that the Wrights were products of their environment. He describes how entrepreneurial, inventive, and industrial atmosphere of Dayton shaped them. More importantly, he masterfully tells the story of their family life. Their father and sister are almost as big a part of this story as Orville and Wilbur. Thus McCullough gives us a valuable glimpse into Gilded Age life. Wilbur died of typhus at 45 in 1912. Orville died at age 77 in 1948, but had stopped flying in 1918 because of the injuries he had sustained in the Ft. Myer crash.