Norfolk could learn from New Orleans' bout with Hurricane Isaac

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by Lucy Bustamante, 13News

WVEC.com

Before joining the 13News team, Lucy Bustamante was a news anchor at WWL-TV in New Orleans, her hometown. She returned to WWL last week to help them cover Hurricane Isaac. 

 

It was the first time I'd be home in a year. Last time was for my babies' shower; This time for Isaac with WWL-TV Channel 4.

You can imagine which circumstances I'd prefer, but that's what you do in this business, arrive in areas when they're at their worst, hoping your coverage will improve the civil situation. It was nice to go back home to New Orleans and go "through it" with the viewers (made up of my friends, acquaintances, family, and pretty interesting New Orleans characters). 

Going home for another storm that was hyped up to hit on the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina didn't really play on my mind too much. This storm was not the same as Katrina. Nowhere near it. 

First of all, it was "just a tropical storm." Secondly, no one evacuates for a tropical storm, so maybe I'd have a chance to see some friends while there. Selfish thought, but I thought it. And thirdly, small storms like Isaac are perfect for "no school" and "hurricane parties." Being born on September 26th, I've had many hurricane birthday parties in the evacuation hotel of my parents' choice. 

In storms like what Isaac was SUPPOSED to be, people don't lose houses, power's out for a few days, and levees certainly DON'T break. 

Enter Hurricane Isaac...UNLIKE any other tropical storm to hit the states. In fact, meteorologists are now studying this storm because of the way it misbehaved. 

Storms aren't supposed to increase in category as they approach landfall. They're supposed to decrease. Storms are supposed to pass faster over land - not hover and crawl at 6mph. Storms are not supposed to have a barometric pressure of 972 at a Category One...that's at least a Cat Two, according to the National Weather Service. 

Isaac ended up being a Category One at landfall. He hit S. Plaquemines parish Tuesday at 6:45pm. That was just its FIRST landfall. It went over more water and had its second landfall at 2:15 Wednesday morning. 

As the reports of damage started to roll in, our producers arranged for the live interviews with every parish president in our viewing area (there we have parishes instead of counties). Orleans Parish did great. NO LEVEE BREACHES. We hardly heard from New Orleans officials. No news is certainly good news. New Orleans faired beautifully thanks to the $15 billion  of levee work and thanks to Isaac being only a Cat One. 

But around 5am Wednesday morning, the tweets on social media site Twitter started to roll in. People were trapped in Braithwaite, in Plaquemines Parish. Water coming into houses. People in Attics. (Go to your map of the US and look at the southernmost part of the state of the LA - that's Plaquemines parish). That parish's earthen levee began to give way. It's a levee that sits outside of the federal protection zone, so it's vulnerable on many fronts. Storms hit it. It erodes. It overtops. But never THIS bad. 

While on the air at WWL, our producer told us in our ears that on the line was a man named Gene Oddo who was trapped in his attic with his wife and one year old baby girl. He tried to call 911 but couldn't get through. So he called us.

My co-anchor Mike Hoss and I looked at each other as we took the call on the air, in disbelief. Had another levee truly breached hours after the eye had left the area? Mr. Oddo's voice on the phone was calm as he told Hoss and I where authorities should find him. Mr. Oddo told us of how he was about to shoot his way through the roof of his attic if the water rose higher. The water was already to the last few steps on the second story of his house.

It was his wife's first hurricane. His baby, Samantha Ray, was giggling her way through her first storm. He would talk to us on the air - and in the same breath turn to his daughter and coo at her, "Hey my baby girl. You're doing so good."  We told him to stop and focus and tell us only the facts that we needed to get him help. He needed to save his phone battery until help got to him. 

Three days passed before we learned that Mr. Oddo got out, thanks to a civilian who heard the report and got him out. He was in Baton Rouge with friends, recovering.  Those were three very long days. 

We began to recieve reports of flooding from all over:

Laplace in St. John Parish -  water was from the Lake spilling onto nine subdivisions.  

Slidell in St. Tammany Parish -  water was from the lake spilling into the canals inside the area. 

Madisonville in St. Tammany Parish - water flowing from the Tchefuncte River due to the storm surge.

Tangipahoa Parish - evacuation of 60 thousand people called because of water possibly breaching the dam at Percy Quinn State Park.

Thousands are still recovering from this and the loss of power. 

There's one thing about living in Southeast Louisiana, the water is your friend and your foe. People understand the giant element there like nowhere else in the country.  The levees that were built around New Orleans pushed the water to other spots on the Louisiana map. Now those areas will fight for their protection. Why? Because California officials fight for money to rebuild houses in the path of the wildfires. Because Kansas officials fight for money to rebuild after tornadoes. It's the dance of living with nature. 

There's one thing everyone learned about this storm: maybe it's time we start discussing hurricanes in more than just categories. WWL's talented meteorologists Laura Buchtel and Derek Kevra clarified multiple times that categories measure only wind speed. They don't tell you how slowly a storm travels, nor how much water it's carrying with it. When people hear "tropical storm," they automatically assume it won't be "bad." Isaac has changed that thought process for many. 

EVERY storm is different, but the people have proven to be the same. Resilient. They're back at their houses cleaning, emailing their officials to stay on top of the power company, planning their kids' upcoming school week. The airport reopened that Friday, August 31st, and welcomed thousands of tourists to a relatively spruced up New Orleans. After all, the whole area depends on the tourism that comes into its core. 

As for me, it's good to be back in Virginia. Unlike my co-workers in New Orleans, I don't have to play chicken at a broken street light or wait to get power back at my house. 

It was a good assignment, one that I plan to use to spread a few lessons here in Norfolk, especially since according to climatecentral.com, Norfolk is rated in the top five high risk areas for hurricanes.

According to Climate Central’s research, Virginia’s Chesapeake area has one of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the country. We are right along with New Orleans in having to know how to manage our water.  Our assets are as important as theirs. They have the oil. We have the Navy. Let's learn from each other so history won't have to repeat itself - anywhere. 

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