The man who saw it coming
Ivor van Heerden has been warning for years that a hurricane strike near New Orleans would be disastrous. On 31 August, he spoke to Nature about helping to mop up the mess left by Katrina.
As director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where has your research been focused?
We have had three parallel activities over the past four years.
One is to develop a model to understand the physical dimensions and impact of a hurricane on New Orleans. A second is to try to get an understanding of the attitudes of the people of New Orleans about how they would react and where they would go.
Tied to that, we have transport engineers who look at evacuation issues, who worked closely with the state to develop the rather successful counterflow evacuation this year.
Another important thing is to develop a database of all the infrastructure in New Orleans and construct a very secure Geographical Information Systems (GIS) database with more than 70 layers of information.
Did this work help officials respond to Katrina?
director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes.
We got the go-ahead this morning to go into full operational mode with our GIS database, so we're working closely with state and federal agencies to integrate new layers of information [such as satellite images of the flood waters]. We've just migrated the GIS on to a very large computer platform with a very wide broadband so people can access it easily, because we're getting inundated.
What research are you conducting in the aftermath?
We have a team that went out to assess wind damage on 30 August. They can't get in to New Orleans but they went to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. There's a team doing aerial reconnaissance tomorrow of the coastlines in the New Orleans area.
We've had individual people going out to look at specific things, such as trying to measure water levels on the rivers, where all the gauges are gone, and of course there's the massive GIS operation. And as soon as it's safe we'll send a group into New Orleans to start sampling the water for bacteria and other contaminants.
Your model predicted that many people would not evacuate. During the disaster, the stranded were told to go to the Superdome, where there was no electricity, and not enough food or medical aid. Some were attacked by gangs, others died from injuries. Can you explain why this happened?
The problem is there are 120,000 people in New Orleans who don't own motor vehicles. There are some hard-headed individuals who won't evacuate, and there is a section of the population who didn't want to evacuate because of the fear of having their homes looted. The majority of those who didn't leave have few resources, so they're the most dependent. I think the city was doing the best it could in terms of utilizing the Superdome.
So do you think more money should have been spent to prepare for those left behind?
What are you most concerned about now?
There are more than 400,000 refugees here in Baton Rouge, and you can feel the desperation in the air. The federal government really needs to be expropriating properties and building refugee camps, because desperate people do desperate things.
People here in Baton Rouge are trying their best to help. They're taking in families; I'm taking in a family. My wife's business is putting ads in the papers to hire refugees, to try and do what they can to help.