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Mar 5, 2016

Mighty Ike: A monster storm in the making

Co-produced with PRX Logo

UPDATE, July 30, 2016: As the country enters the peak of storm season this summer, we want to return to a question we asked earlier this year: What would happen if a major hurricane hit Texas? 

We followed up on what’s happened since we first brought you this story. An updated version of the original episode can be heard below.

Texas is home to the Houston Ship Channel, one of the world’s busiest maritime waterways. Also in Houston, and along the channel, are oil refineries and chemical plants that make up the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex. It’s a major economic hub.

But what would happen to the area if a big hurricane hit?

In 2008, Hurricane Ike swept through Texas and resulted in billions of dollars in damages. But it could have been much worse. The storm turned at the last minute and didn’t hit Houston head on. So imagine if Ike happened again, but with higher winds, and this time, the storm headed straight toward Houston. According to scientists, this is more of a question of “when” than “if.”

In this hour of Reveal, we work with The Texas Tribune and ProPublica to take a look at what would happen if a worst-case storm hit the region in the not-so-distant future – a storm dubbed “Mighty Ike” that scientists say is coming.

We first take a look back at what happened during an event that haunts us to this day: Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of people died, and thousands more were stranded. Reporter Mark Schleifstein of The Times-Picayune saw this coming years before it actually happened.

And what could happen to Houston could be a lot worse. Texas Tribune/Reveal reporter and producer Neena Satija walks us through the path of the storm scientists foresee hitting the area.

Then back to New Orleans: On top of the flooding and damage from Katrina, a massive oil spill struck. Reporter Bob Marshall of the nonprofit newsroom The Lens and Eve Troeh of New Orleans Public Radio fill us in on what happened.

Then Satija uses Katrina to help frame the potential deadly outcomes of another hurricane and discusses the preventative measures that aren’t being taken to protect the Houston area from a massive oil or chemical spill.

DIG DEEPER

  • Interactive: Why isn’t Texas ready for the next big hurricane? The Texas Tribune and ProPublica investigate.
  • Read: Hell and High Water
  • Share your story: How has a hurricane changed your life?

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado-Lightning, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Dither, “Roar and Spit” from “Live at ISSUE (4/27/10)” (Issue Project Room)
  • The Necks, “Night Two / Set Two” from “Live at ISSUE Project Room (01/28/2010)” (Issue Project Room)
  • Jim Briggs, “Mighty Ike” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Hurricane Mystery (variation 1)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Hurricane Mystery (variation 2)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Hurricane Mystery (variation 3)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Steve Gunn, “Mr. Franklin” from “Live at WFMU's Monty Hall: Oct 18, 2015” (WFMU)
  • Pale Sketcher, “Tiny Universes (Interstellar)” from “Jesu Pale Sketches Demixed” (Ghostly International)
  • Kiln, “Pinemarten” from “meadow:watt” (Ghostly International)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “Bidous” from “Bayou Birds” (Blue Dot Sessions)
  • Tycho, “A Walk” from “Dive” (Ghostly International)
  • Jim Briggs, “Roads Vamp” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Kai Engel, “Sunset” from “Idea” (self-released)
  • Steve Gunn, “Old Strange” from “Live at WFMU's Monty Hall: Oct 18, 2015” (WFMU)
  • Steve Gunn, “Trouba” from “On A Steady Diet of Hash, Bread, & Salt” (soundeyet)
  • Rod Rogers, "If I Had a Million Dollars" from "The Wonderful and the Obscure Volume 1: Rodd Keith" (Happy Puppy Records)

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Al:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. In 2002, Mark Schleifstein, a reporter at the Times-Picayune New Orleans, saw a monster of a hurricane coming.

Schleifstein:

Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive.

Al:

3 years later, Hurricane Katrina proved him right. Today in Texas, scientists like Bill Merrell are ringing the alarm about another major storm that could cripple the Houston area.

Bill :

A $100 billion storm just went out there for the Houston-Galveston channel.

Al:

But have we learned the lessons that Katrina gave us?

Bill :

We're more vulnerable, in my opinion. We're going to continue to get more vulnerable.

Al:

Preparing for the big one. Coming up on Reveal.

Female 1:

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Al:

 

[00:02:00]

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. What's it like to sound the alarm? To be screaming at the top of your lungs? Trying to convince people that something really bad is about to happen. Something so bad people just don't even want to see it coming. Reporter Mark Schleifstein knows that feeling. Back in 2002 he co-wrote a series of stories that made some dyer predictions.

Schleifstein:

Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water with no means of escape and little food or fresh water. Perhaps for several days.

Al:

Those are some pretty drastic claims to make. People trapped without food or water in modern day America? It seemed impossible. When Mark pitched the story, not all of his editors were convinced.

Schleifstein:

At that original meting, one of our editors actually leaned back in his chair and said, "Well, you know, this is just more of Schleifstein's disaster porn". I said, "Well, you know, like real pornography it's in the eye of the beholder. There are 100,000 people within the city of New Orleans that don't have cars who might want to know that there really are no plans to get them out of the city". Which there weren't at that time.

Al:

You've probably already guessed we're talking about a major hurricane devastating New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina hit the city in August of 2005 the predictions Mark made in the Times-Picayune 3 years earlier started coming true on TV.

Male 1:

By boat, and by helicopter rescue teams work today to get people still trapped in their attics or on their rooftops to safety. Hundreds of people have been stranded this way. Dead bodies float by as crews look for the survivors.

Schleifstein:

Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive.

Male 2:

We got children out here. We got pregnant women out here. They won't even bring water!

Schleifstein:

Whoever remained in the city would be at great risk. Tens of thousands more would be stranded on rooftops and high ground awaiting rescue that could take days or longer.

[00:04:00]

Male 3:

 

These people are very desperate. I saw 2 gentlemen die in front of me because of dehydration. I saw a baby near death.

Schleifstein:

Hundreds of thousands would be left homeless. It would take months to dry out the area, and begin to make it livable. There wouldn't be much for residents to come home to. The local economy would be in ruins.

Male 4:

The city is essentially cut off. One runway opened at the airport, but highways and roads remain impassable. Supplies are running short. So are tempers. The scope of the disaster, murky yesterday, is much clearer tonight.

Female 2:

Twin spans are down. The bridges are down. There's no electricity. Phone lines are down. Cellular phone lines are down. There's no way of us getting in contact with any of our families, friends, anybody that's left behind. Out of those casualties we don't know who's hurt, if they're related to us or what. We going to be here whether we like it or not. We can't take any road home. There's trees. The causeway is no more. It's gone.

Al:

After Katrina, Mark was treated like a diviner.

Schleifstein:

It makes me look like Nostradamus.

Al:

The real scary thing is that Hurricane Katrina's wrath wasn't the worst the Gulf could dish out to New Orleans. Most of the flooding didn't happen because the water went over the levies. It was because the levies breached. Huge gaps opened in the system of flood walls that was supposed to protect the Big Easy. The storm didn't even make a direct hit on the city.

Schleifstein:

 

[00:06:00]

If Katrina had made a direct hit on the city of New Orleans, and we hadn't been in the eastern half of the storm, the storm surge would have been 28 to 32 feet above sea level. That would have over topped every single levy in the city. The entire city would be completely underwater by 20 feet. My predictions were about the big one. Katrina wasn't the big one. Katrina was the storm that should not have caused the flooding that occurred.

Al:

Even with people like Mark Schleifstein ringing the alarm, it can be easy for people to ignore the warnings of officials. If you live on a gulf or a place that has storms all the time, you can lulled into a false sense of security. After living in Florida most of my life I get it. Every year my little city seems to miss the big one. The idea of a massive
storm hitting just sounds like a lot of worrying for no reason. A big storm coming isn't a possibility. It's a probability.

 

Take the Houston area for example. A hurricane makes landfall there every 8 years on average. Every 15 years that hurricane is a major one. When Hurricane Ike came through in 2008, it caused $30 billion in damage, and killed dozens of people. It could have been worse if it hit Houston head on. Instead it turned at the last minute. If Ike hadn't turned away, scientists and some public officials say thousands would have lost their lives. There would've been ripple effects through the national economy.
Houston is an industrial and oil hub with a huge international port. If it were shut down the whole country would see higher gas prices. The cost would go up on practically anything that has plastic in it. Everything from car tires to Tupperware.

 

 

[00:08:00]

What if the big one really hits? What could happen? Journalists from the Texas Tribune and ProPublica teamed up to find out. They got some pretty sophisticated storm models from the scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and Jackson State University. They used some hefty super computers to simulate what could happen if the Houston area was hit with a massive storm.

 

One of those storm models was called Mighty Ike. It happens like this. Mighty Ike forms as a huge cyclone in the ocean. It's so powerful it's pushing all this water in front of it. So much so, that 12 hours before the storm reaches the coast, Galveston Island is already completely underwater. Almost 50,000 people live there. When the storm makes landfall the real storm surge hits. Which means rising water meets hurricane force winds. Imagine a shallow pan of water that's already overflowing. Then get a leaf blower, and blow it across. The first place that leaf blower points is west, towards Clear Lake, a narrow body of water off the coast that runs a few miles inland. That is where we find Reveal's Neena Satija. Hi Neena.

Neena Satija:

Hey Al.

Al:

Okay. Tell me about Clear Lake.

Neena Satija:

As you said Clear Lake's a body of water, but it's also what people call a bunch of communities that are clustered around suburban Houston. More than 150,000 people live here, and the population's growing. We wanted to see what Mighty Ike could do to this area. We went on a tour with someone who lives there, Sam Brody.

Sam:

You ready, Fuzz? (high pitched voice) I'm ready. (normal voice) Let's do it.

Neena Satija:

Sam's not just a resident. He's also an expert in flood planning. Fuzz is what he likes to call my microphone.

Sam:

It's very fuzzy. We're going to call him Fuzzy.

Neena Satija:

That's cool ... maybe.

[00:10:00]

Sam:

 

I think my stand up comic routine is probably not my strong point.

Neena Satija:

Sam moved here after Hurricane Ike. He works for Texas A&M University. They wanted him to move here to study the area's vulnerability to flooding. Kind of funny for a guy who knows all about flood risk to move somewhere that floods a lot. He loves it here.

Sam:

My research is better because everyday I see these communities. I'm part of a larger body of people working on these issue. It's better for my kids and my family. Every weekend we go to Houston, and we do stuff.

Neena Satija:

Sam's wife and 2 kids are happy here. Good schools, nice neighbors, and the restaurants are great.

Sam:

I've always wanted to go there, Ramen Bar. That's a really good Thai restaurant right there.

Neena Satija:

Here's the thing though. Sam knows Mighty Ike or a storm like it is coming. Mighty Ike will pummel some of these low lying neighborhoods we're driving through with more than 25 feet of water. Even much higher elevation points could see 8 feet or more.

Sam:

It's going to happen one day. It's going to happen. Even without the increasing models that account for climate change and more severe storms. Even without that.

Neena Satija:

Thousands of homes and businesses in Clear Lake are in deep trouble in Mighty Ike. That Italian restaurant that Sam likes, the area around it could see 6 feet of water. For some perspective there, I'm 5'3" so I'd basically be swimming. Sam took us to see houses that are standing on stilts 10 feet off the ground, but if Mighty Ike hit people living there wouldn't be safe. Not even on the second floor.

Al:

This sounds just like Katrina with people trapped in their homes climbing onto roofs. Neena, if folks know this is a hurricane prone area why aren't they more concerned about this?

[00:12:00]

Neena Satija:

 

People know there's always a chance for hurricanes. They don't seem to know how bad it could get in a storm like Mighty Ike. Most of the time life is fine. Picture this, you get to live by this gorgeous lake and marina. It's peaceful and quiet, but not too far from the bustle of downtown Houston. You've got a couple of major medical centers here, and you've got NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Al:

That sounds nice, but what about the potential flooding?

Neena Satija:

That's not something people really talk about. No ones crossing their lawn saying to their neighbor, "Hey I worked it out. We'll only have an inch of water inside when the big one comes". The communities clustered around Clear Lake have actually been some of the fastest growing in the country. Since Hurricane Ike tens of thousands of people have moved here. A lot of them aren't coming from the coast. They've never seen a hurricane. This is how Sam sees it.

Sam:

You're a professional. You move to this area. You're like,"Cool, I have a water view. I'm sure there's going to be some kind of boat launch. This is a great place to be". The last thing you think about is 20 feet of water coming up here.

Neena Satija:

To put that into perspective, think about it this way. It only take 18 inches of water to float a car. Drive a modern car into 18 inches of water and that force is enough to lift the car up off the ground and send it rushing off. Think about what even a few feet could do. That's why Sam was so careful when he bought a home here. He looked at the exact elevation. He looked up all the flood defenses, from big to small. It's how he chose the block he lives on.

 

Did you purposefully choose one next to the big storm
drain?

Sam:

Maybe. We're going to go ...

Neena Satija:

The land behind Sam's house slopes way down to the water below. The whole neighborhoods been raised several feet. In Mighty Ike his house gets a couple inches of water. Not catastrophic.

[00:14:00]

Do you think that the new developments that are being built ...

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:04]

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Speaker 1:

The new developments that are being built in this area, do you think that those developers are as responsible as-

Sam:

No, no.

Speaker 1:

Sam drove us to a place called Nassau Bay Town Square. It's this new commercial development in Clear Lake. It's got a bunch of shops, an apartment complex, a hotel and some offices.

Sam:

I could just tell the place is going underwater.

Speaker 1:

Under something like six feet of water, according to the computer models. Sam says the buildings might stay standing, but-

Sam:

They'd be catastrophically damaged. It would be a total loss. You know, you may have a structure, but it's not usable.

Speaker 1:

Any cars in the parking lot here would be goners. They'd turn into floating barges that ram into other things.

Sam:

This is going to be a shopping center one day, so we're going to add more people, and more structures, and more pavement, and so we have a decision that we can say, "Okay, if we're going to do that, can we do it differently? Does that make sense? Can we understand the risk better, and have models like this?" Like, "Hey, look, you could be under eight feet of water." I would be shocked if the developers of that shopping center knew that when they put that in.

Al:

What did the developers have to say? I mean, do they even know that this can happen?

Speaker 1:

I called the developer of that shopping center, and he had no idea how high the water could get. He was kind of shocked, because Nassau Bay Town Square is following the rules, it's up to code. It follows the local flood planning regulations. Those regulations just aren't designed to protect buildings from something like Mighty Ike, and the developer doesn't think they should be, neither does this guy.

Bob Mitchell:

Bob Mitchell, President of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.

Speaker 1:

Bob works in Nassau Bay Town Square, and his group recruits businesses to come to the Houston area, and he's pretty good at it.

[00:16:00]

Bob Mitchell:

 

We have forty-six aerospace companies that are members, we have, oh gosh, eight or ten specialty chemical companies, seventeen different banks.

Speaker 1:

If Mighty Ike hits, Bob knows what it does to his office.

Bob Mitchell:

It's under water.

Speaker 1:

Right, it's under water.

Bob Mitchell:

Trust me, I know that.

Speaker 1:

Why keep expanding this development if-

Bob Mitchell:

I can't believe that's a serious question.

Speaker 1:

Why? Why does it sound like such a [crosstalk 00:16:19]

Bob Mitchell:

You're going to stop development? I mean it's the same thing, that question you're asking me is no different than the terrorists right now. Am I going to stop everything I do because I'm worried about somebody is going to charge into a store and shoot the place up?

Speaker 1:

That sums up the attitude a lot of people have. How do I know which impending catastrophe I should worry about? But there's no way of predicting when the next mass shooting is likely to happen or where, and we do know that the Houston area gets a major hurricane every fifteen years. Bob said that himself a few minutes later.

Bob Mitchell:

Look at the statistics, okay? I mean, every fifteen years we have a major category four or five hit this region. What are the odds? One of these days, we're going to have a major catastrophe.

Speaker 1:

Bob doesn't think we should stop building because of the threat of Mighty Ike. He wants to start building something else, some kind of flood gate or levy system to protect Houston, and he's been arguing for one for years. But that type of thing might take decades to plan and build.

 

Sam Brody wants to change things before then, otherwise it might be too late.

Sam:

Bob has a terrific organization and serves a great purpose, and he's well positioned here, and the rant is such that it makes sense, and it makes sense until some kind of disaster happens.

Speaker 1:

 

[00:18:00]

More than one hundred sixty thousand people live around Clear Lake. That number is growing every year, and more people are moving in who've never seen a hurricane. In fact, many didn't evacuate this area during hurricane Ike, even when the National Weather Service said they might die if they stayed. If the storm hadn't turned at the last minute, a lot of people would probably have died in Clear Lake and Galveston; even Bob Mitchell agrees.

Bob Mitchell:

I hate fear, but I'm going to tell you something, there would've been thousands of deaths, thousands. I can assure you that.

Al:

That's a pretty dire prediction, but the damage to homes, and even the loss of life, that's just the beginning. When we come back, we're going to follow the path of Mighty Ike to Houston's Industrial Complex, where there's another risk, sitting on the waterfront. Billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals in huge tanks. You're listening to Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Julia:

Hey podcast listeners, it's Julia B. Chan from Reveal. The stories you hear in this episode are part of a new collaboration between the Texas Tribune and ProPublica. They produced a series of stories along with an interactive map that shows what a Mighty Ike or other hypothetical storms could do to the Houston area. See storms or its prediction by location, and learn more about the facilities that could be at risk. You can find links to their work on our episode page. Just visit revealnews.org/episodes and look for Mighty Ike.

 

Again, that's revealnews.org/episodes.

Al:

[00:20:00]

For the Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. On today's show, we've been talking about a hurricane of epic proportions hitting Houston. Scientists say it's coming, and they've created computer models that show exactly what could happen when this storm hits. Earlier in the hour, you heard about one of these models, called Mighty Ike and what it would do to Clear Lake, a densely populated residential area that is home to more than a hundred thousand people, but
Houston is also home to a massive oil refining and chemical manufacturing complex. If a hurricane like Mighty Ike would hit, all those industries would be in trouble, and that could cripple the economy of the entire country. That may sound like an exaggeration, but not if you knew what the Houston ship channel means.

Speaker 3:

We're the largest port in the country in foreign trade.

Speaker 4:

Major cities are anchored with ports.

Speaker 5:

The Houston Ship Channel is a vital national asset. There's no question about it.

Al:

This is a documentary celebrating the Houston Ship Channel's one hundredth anniversary, made back in 2014.

Speaker 6:

A Houston harbor pilot will meet the ship at the mouth of Galveston Bay, and guide it up the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest and narrowest water ways in the world.

Al:

The Houston Ship Channel is a water highway, and it extends more than twenty miles inland, almost into downtown Houston. Thousands of ships come through here, each year, and tens of thousands of people live and work on the Houston Ship Channel, right in the path of a storm like Mighty Ike.

 

Neena Satija of the Texas Tribune takes it from here.

Neena Satija:

A lot of people who work in the oil industry don't like to talk to reporters, and they definitely don't like to talk about the risks facing the oil industry, like climate change or hurricanes. Jana [Polush 00:21:42] is different. When we contacted Shell union workers, trying to find someone to talk to about storms like Mighty Ike, Janet was immediately interested. She's worked at the Shell oil refinery on the Houston Ship Channel for more than a decade.

Jana:

[00:22:00]

I was always kind of proud that I worked in the oil industry, because I felt like I was following my father's foot steps. I mean, they are good paying jobs.

Neena Satija:

Janet's got an interesting background. She started out working in refineries, but then she got a master's degree and became a librarian. After a few years of that, she got sick of wearing pantyhose and sitting at a desk.

Jana:

Then, I decided that I preferred industry, so I came full circle and came back to this area, and was hired at Shell in 2004.

Neena Satija:

The Shell refinery and Janet's home are in Deer Park, Texas, one of the towns clustered around the Houston Ship Channel. Parts of Shell are very close to the water, so I showed her the hurricane model on my laptop.

 

So let's see what happens, this is what they did, so now we're at twenty-four hours prior to landfall.

Jana:

This puts it in front of your face, and makes it less abstract, so this is something that people need to see, it's not something that some reporters have dreamed up.

Neena Satija:

Eight years ago, Janet rode out hurricane Ike in her little one story house in Deer Park, so she knows what storms can do to the area, but she didn't realize quite how bad things could get, until she saw the model of Mighty Ike, and she thinks her neighbors should see it too.

Jana:

As a community, it would be good if we could come together and have a discussion about this.

Neena Satija:

There's another thing that could put Janet and her neighbors at risk. If you look at the Houston Ship Channel on Google Earth, you see a lot of tiny white dots near the water. Here on the ground, those dots are a bunch of storage tanks full of oil and chemicals. Janet drives me to a cluster of tanks near her neighborhood, she calls it a tank farm.

Jana:

Okay now, Crenshaw is coming up, the tank farm is on the other side of the freeway.

[00:24:00]

Neena Satija:

 

There's a fence, so we can't get too close, but even twenty feet back, they look like huge white towers.

 

Didn't realize quite how big they actually are, it's just so giant, so secure.

 

Some of the tanks are surrounded by a low concrete wall.

Jana:

It's small enough to step over, I can step over one of them.

Neena Satija:

Researchers at Rice University and the University of Houston use satellite data to locate all of these storage tanks, and then they looked at what Mighty Ike would do to them. More than a thousand are in the area that gets hit by storm surge.

Jana:

Okay, here's what I've heard. The tanks, if there's enough water, they actually come up off their foundations, and it's conceivable to me that here's this huge tank floating around and it can float and just knock the (bleep) out of that little concrete area, concrete wall.

Neena Satija:

That scenario, the tanks lifting up off their foundations, that's what researchers are most worried about on the Houston Ship Channel. They say spills from even a few tanks could cause an environmental catastrophe. It also makes Janet think about the industry she's worked in for so many years.

Jana:

Well, it makes me look at everything differently, having to do with a petrochemical industry in this area, yeah, definitely impacts how I see that.

Al:

 

 

 

[00:26:00]

Mighty Ike is making Jana wonder what if. What if that type of storm hit her community? What if those storage tanks ruptured? But, it's not just a what if, because that type of damage already happened, during hurricane Katrina. In 2005, Katrina not only hit homes and businesses along the Louisiana coast, it also barreled into massive storage tanks containing oil. You can guess what happened next. Here's Bob Marshall, of the Investigative News site The Lens, with the story.

Speaker 7:

Here are some pictures, these are some of the pictures of Saint Bernard.

Bob Marshall:

Yeah, look at that.

Speaker 7:

You recognize that.

Bob Marshall:

Joy and John Lewis keep a set of pictures at the ready, in a zip loc bag. Like most folks here, they've told their Katrina stories a
hundred times.

John:

Infrastructure of the entire Parrish was devastated. The infrastructure, by that I mean-

Joy:

[inaudible 00:26:27]

John:

You didn't have any clean water, you didn't have a service aid, you didn't have a pharmacy, you didn't have a barber shop, you didn't have a supermarket.

Joy:

Not even a bird within the air.

John:

Not even a bird on the sky.

Bob Marshall:

Only six homes out of twenty seven thousand were livable after the flood in Saint Bernard Parrish. Along with the flood's destruction came something else, an overpowering stench.

John:

It smelled like in Summer time, when they just black tarred a road.

Bob Marshall:

It came from a skim of oil that coated everything.

John:

Black tar, you know what that smells like, it's a petrochemical odor.

Bob Marshall:

The Lewis' lived on Marietta street, between two oil refineries, each with a field of those huge storage tanks. Katrina's storm surge lifted one of those tanks off its base and a million gallons of oil spilled into the flood. When the water receded, the oil stayed.

Joy:

This, you can look here and see the oil on the ground.

Bob Marshall:

Out comes that zip lock and a stack of photos from their fist visit back.

 

So, the ground here looks like it's all cracked up, like maybe broken porcelain or bricks, and that's the oil on top of the mud.

Joy:

Right.

Bob Marshall:

Nearly two thousand homes got an oil bath along with the flood.

 

So, every one of these homeowners-

Joy:

Had oil.

Bob Marshall:

 

[00:28:00]

Now, Joy and John are part of a wave of New Orleaneans who moved out of the city in the 1960's for a middle class suburban life here in neighboring Saint Bernard Parrish. When they moved here, they brought along their working class New Orleans accents. Not Southern really, but closer to what you might hear in Brooklyn. In fact, people, like the Lewis' are-

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:04]

Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:54:08] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Bob Marshall:

In fact people like the Lewises are locally known as yads for the ways they greet each other, "Where yeah at?". Kind of a local version of how you doing.

Joy Lewis:

This is where my kids are. I had 4 kids, and they were all raised here.

Bob Marshall:

The neighborhood seemed like 1 big family.

Joy Lewis:

I knew everybody. I had a choir at the churches. We used to move around to St. Mark's, and [inaudible 00:28:24], and Prince of Peace.
We just had fun here.

Bob Marshall:

They helped build Marietta Street from the get go. New houses, new families just starting out, everyone's children playing together. Those 2 refineries, they weren't considered eye sores but points of pride. They were the economic engines that made this new prosperous life possible.

Joy Lewis:

At the time, we didn't even think about it because we all worked. We'd come home at night and go to bed. The kids were playing outside.

Bob Marshall:

The storm delivered an unimaginable blow. The oil spill on top of that.

Joy Lewis:

I was angry. Yes. Definitely. I was so concerned about getting everything out of the house. I didn't let anybody help us. We just did what we could. I took a lot of furniture out of here with oil and everything on it. We kind of brought it to the car wash, and we washed it off. I saved a lot of my stuff.

Bob Marshall:

Now at first the Lewises fought to save their home. Even though Joy's doctors advised against it because she was in treatment for kidney cancer.

Joy Lewis:

I was on chemo. I was on all this mess. They told me not to come here. I did it anyway because this is my home. I came here, and I worked in the oil and all that. I worked in the mud, and the dirt, and everything that was here.

Bob Marshall:

Eventually the Lewises realized they just couldn't do it. They couldn't rebuild in the same spot. They gutted the home and sold it.

Johnny Lewis:

We decided it was time to leave the parish.

Bob Marshall:

Now the oil spill was the final straw, but it came after decades of disillusionment with the refineries. Years before Katrina the Lewises became convinced that living near the refineries was making people in their neighborhoods sick. Even though no link has been proven. The kidney cancer Joy suffered, it wasn't just her. She points to a nearby home.

Joy Lewis:

The lady across the street, right here at this corner, her daughter was 19 and developed leukemia, okay? She died at 20. I started feeling, you know, this is a strange deal.

Bob Marshall:

She did her own informal, cancer survey between her house and the closest major street, Judge Perez Drive.

Joy Lewis:

I walked up and down about how long Johnny?

Johnny Lewis:

I guess that's about 4 blocks.

Joy Lewis:

I wanted to know who had cancer. Out of these blocks from here to Judge Perez I got 17 people that died of cancer

Bob Marshall:

Cancer also claimed one of the Lewis' daughters. Then it struck both of them as well as their grandson. After that tank spilled in Katrina, the company that owned it, Murphy Oil now Valero, offered homeowners a settlement. Combined with insurance money and federal disaster recovery funds it was enough to get them a new home somewhere else.

Joy Lewis:

My daughter had passed away. I just didn't want to bother with it anymore.

Bob Marshall:

Given a chance to leave, to start over, they took it. Joy and John Lewis moved about 40 miles north to higher ground without refineries. They weren't alone. On their stretch of Marietta Street only 1 original resident remains. Joy does come back to visit her daughter's grave.

[00:32:00]

Joy Lewis:

 

She used to live right down the street. She's buried right here in the [inaudible 00:31:59] Cemetery. I intend to take her ashes out of there. I don't even want her here. I don't want my dead daughter's remains here.

Bob Marshall:

Taking a drive around the old neighborhood and then to see the tanks, the Lewises seem more sentimental than angry. Of all their concerns about living near an oil refinery, they never worried about a storage tank spill.

 

Should we take a quick little tour down here?

Joy Lewis:

Yes.

Bob Marshall:

On the left hand side, these tanks that look like these huge tanks that you see at refineries all over the country and the world I suppose. These things rise like white mountains on this flat landscape. They look just as immovable. They're 30 feet tall, about 100 feet around. It looks like you could put a high school gym inside of each one. As Katrina's 15 foot surge filled the parish, it floated buildings, buses, and cars off the ground. It did the same for at least 1 of these tanks.

 

This is one of the ones that was lifted off it's pad?

Johnny Lewis:

That's correct.

Joy Lewis:

That's right.

Bob Marshall:

The oil came out from under the pad. The Lewises didn't see that coming.

Joy Lewis:

I never in my wildest dreams ever figured that would lift and the oar would come out from the bottom. That didn't even enter my mind.

Johnny Lewis:

It was one in a million shot that that happened.

Bob Marshall:

To be fair no one else saw this coming either. St. Bernard Parish was supposedly protected from the gulf by the Army core of engineers' 20 foot levies. Katrina proved those were not properly built and had been poorly maintained. Instead of water just coming over the top, the levies collapsed.

John Rom:

[00:34:00]

The original levy system which was an earthen dam had approximately 20, 25 breaches.

 

Bob Marshall:

That's John Rom. He's the emergency manager for the parish. Today he's standing on a soggy section of ground on the edge of the parish that rises maybe 5 feet above the nearby roadway. Yet when Katrina arrived, that was the hurricane protection. Now this pile of earth has a towering concrete wall on top that seems to run off to the horizon.

John Rom:

It runs probably 20, 25 miles and circles most of St. Bernard Parish. It varies in height from 20, 25 to 30 feet depending on what part the wall you're looking at.

Bob Marshall:

This wall is a crown jewel in a $14 billion protection system built by the core after Katrina.

John Rom:

The official name of this wall is the Hurricane Storm Re-damaged Risk Reduction System which took me a long time to get it correct. In St. Bernard's we call it the Great Wall of New Orleans.

Bob Marshall:

He says the Great Wall protects from a tidal surge of more than 30 feet. The refineries and their storage tanks are inside that wall. Plus the refineries are now supposed to fill the tanks with fluid before a storm. Weighing them down so they won't float away.

John Rom:

That should take care of any problems that had during Katrina with refineries and their tanks.

Bob Marshall:

Some refineries and tanks are not inside the Great Wall. One of those just a few miles from here spilled in Hurricane Isaac in 2012 sending toxic chemicals into neighborhoods. What does an emergency manager say to that? Well, Rom says safe is a relative term anywhere on the Gulf coast.

John Rom:

 

[00:36:00]

If you're going to move into an area that is hurricane prone, you've got to know the risk you're taking before you move in. Investigate where you're going to move. See what's happened in the past. What's the history of oil spills, if you will, hurricanes, or any kind of natural disasters? Don't move in somewhere thinking it's a Shangri-La when it's not.

Bob Marshall:

Ask Joy Lewis about her Shangri-La, her decades of happy family life. She'll say they were only happy because they didn't understand the risk they faced. What would it take to convince her that her old home is safe?

Joy Lewis:

They could not convince me at all because I don't trust them.

Bob Marshall:

Back on their old block, the Lewises point out old details they remember. The carport they built. The fence they raised. The tree hanging over that fence.

Joy Lewis:

I had a lemon tree. The lemons were this big. Beautiful. I'm glad they didn't cut that down. At least it's something living there yet.

Bob Marshall:

They worry about those lemons though. Are they safe to at after the oil? The worry about the people living on their old block, about anyone living near a refinery or storage tanks.

 

What if you knew someone who was thinking of moving next to a refinery in a nice subdivision in Texas between a couple of refineries?

Joy Lewis:

I would tell them they're wasting their time. I would tell them they can research all they want. The tanks will be their forever. They can't get rid of them. They can move. If their is anywhere that they possibly could financially get out of the area I would advise them to get out and take their children with them.

Al Letson:

 

[00:38:00]

That story was produced by Bob Marshall of the non-profit news room, The Lens, and Eve Troeh of New Orleans Public Radio. We know what can happen when a storm hits an area with these massive storage tanks, but what if anything is being done to protect the area. We ask that question when we come back on Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting, and PRX.

Cole Goins:

Hey podcast listeners. It's Cole Goins from Reveal. We've been talking a lot on this episode about what a massive hurricane could do if it hit Houston head on. In recent years we've already seen the devastating impact of hurricanes from Katrina to Sandy and how they've deeply effected communities in their wake. We want to hear your hurricane stories. How has a hurricane changed your life? Call us and leave a voice mail about your experience. Tell us how a hurricane has effected you, your family, or
friends. Just dial (415)273-9719 listen to the prompt, and wait for the tone. We may use your message on our podcast or our website. That number again, (415)273-9719. We look forward to hearing your stories.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Okay, let me catch you up. We're talking about what will happen if a massive hurricane hits the Houston area. Scientists say that kind of storm is long overdue. Hurricane Katrina taught us many lessons about how people's homes and livelihoods can be wiped out in a matter of hours. We also learned what happens to huge storage tanks of oil in that type of storm. They get knocked over and can contaminate entire communities. Those are some pretty powerful lessons, but is anyone listening? Our producer, Neena Satija of the Texas Tribune has been looking been looking into that and now tells us what, if anything, is being done to protect the Houston area from a massive oil or chemical spill.

Neena Satija:

 

[00:40:00]

If you want to know who's protecting people on the Houston ship channel, the guy to talk to is Brian Smalley. He's with the Oil Enforcement Group and the Environmental Protection Agency. Brian told me companies with oil tanks near the water do have to follow rules to prevent a spill.

 

Do these rules include anything specific about a hurricane or storm surge situation, protecting against that?

Brian Smalley:

The industry standards that we lean back on are typically like the API standards, the American Petroleum Institute standards.

Neena Satija:

There aren't any government standards to protect against storm surge. You do have to build walls around your tank, but they usually not high enough to withstand these huge storms. The walls around the Murphy Oil tank that spilled in St. Bernard Parish, they were 8 feet tall. These federal rules only cover oil tanks.

 

What about storage tanks that have other types of chemicals?

Brian Smalley:

Right now the SPC requirements only cover oils.

Neena Satija:

All of the large chemical plants on the Houston ship channel that have these giant storage tanks, they're not required to have a spill prevention plan in place for those tanks?

Brian Smalley:

If they're not storing oil, then no.

Neena Satija:

The scientists we talked to who study this, they're not satisfied with these answers. They think the rules protecting storage tanks need to be a lot stronger. No one I spoke with in government or industry agrees. They said it'd be too expensive to prepare for a rare monster hurricane like Katrina. Marshall Mott-Smith is an industry consultant. He used to run Florida's storage tank safety program. He's seen a lot of hurricanes.

Marshall :

If you get a direct hit there's just nothing you can do. You wait 'til it's all over. Then you go pick up the pieces and you rebuild your tank.

Neena Satija:

 

[00:42:00]

We did hear that some companies go above and beyond the rules. I asked almost 2 dozen facilities on the Houston ship channel. How do you protect your tanks? The only one that gave me any specifics was Chevron. Chevron told me the walls around their tanks in Galena Park Texas are roughly 8 feet high. That may not be enough to protect against a really big hurricane.

 

I've spent months talking to businesses on the Houston ship channel about this. When it comes down to it, they pretty much told me just making these walls just a little taller isn't going to cut it. They want something truly big. It's called the coastal spine. The coastal spine is a kind of barrier system that's been used in other parts of the world, like the Netherlands.

Bill Merrell:

The Dutch wouldn't have put up with this. Why do we put up with it?

Neena Satija:

That's Bill Merrell. He's a scientist at Texas A&M University in Galveston. It was Bill who first suggested building a coastal spine in Texas. He was inspired by the Dutch.

Bill Merrell:

They have defenses for this. We could too. We're certainly a rich enough country to do this.

Neena Satija:

Basically, Bill wants to build a 2 mile long, giant gate in the water off the Texas coast. Most of the time it could be left open, but when a storm's brewing out in the Gulf of Mexico, you'd close it to prevent storm surge from coming in.

Al Letson:

Let's just go over a few things here. Everything that Bill Merrell wants to do sounds really expensive. How much money are we talking about here?

Neena Satija:

Yeah. We're talking about billions of dollars, Al. The Army core of engineers just started studying the idea. That'll take 5 years. Assuming the Army core recommends we build it, Congress has to agree to pay for it.

Al Letson:

What are the chances of that?

Neena Satija:

We called every member of Congress in Texas. We asked them, "Will you fight for this project to be built, and will you ask for the money?". There's 36 of them in the House and there's 2 in the Senate. We heard back from 5.

Phil Novak:

I would have to ask our policy team experts.

[00:44:00]

Gene Green:

 

I can't do it. I don't have the capability to say this is what we need to do.

Pete Olson:

These things move really slowly. Anytime you want to build some sort of levy or something it's a 5 to 10 year process.

Randy Weber:

Obviously if we can get 1 of the Senators to step up and champion this, it would go a great way.

Neena Satija:

That last voice was Congressman Randy Weber. Before that we heard from Congressman Pete Olson and Gene Green. The first voice was Phil Novak who works for Senator Ted Cruz. We also spoke to Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.

Eddie Johnson:

As much as we'd like to do a whole lot more about it, it's very costly.

Neena Satija:

It was really hard to get Texas politicians to talk about this. We tried Governor Greg Abbott, and he wasn't available. We tried to talk to the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, and he wouldn't talk. Only 1 state wide elected official would talk to us, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the nephew of George W.

George P. Bush:

You and me may not even see the completion of this project in our lifetime. We need more of that in public leadership where we're thinking generationally.

Al Letson:

So Neena, at this point in the show I have to ask you, do you feel like Mark Schleifstein, the reporter we heard from at the beginning of the show?

Neena Satija:

You mean because he saw disaster coming?

Al Letson:

Yeah. How do you feel?

Neena Satija:

I do kind of feel the same way. What's really scary about that is we've spent months talking to people all over Texas about this storm and what it can do. A lot of them thought we were crazy. A lot of them thought it was silly for us to even be talking about this. That tells me that they won't understand the risk until it actually happens. At that point it's going to be too late.

Al Letson:

 

 

[00:46:00]

Thanks a lot Neena. That's producer Neena Satija. Before we go today, we want to update you on another disaster. One that could have been prevented. The Flint Michigan water crisis. People there still can't drink tap water because of lake contamination. Back in January we aired a documentary from Michigan radio that explained how the lead got into the water, and how officials held off doing anything about it for months. Here's a snippet from that show. Reporter Lindsey Smith is talking to Brad Wurfel, a spokesman at Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, after a leaked EPA report pointed to a serious problem.

Brad Wurfel:

Let me start here. Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax. There is no broad problem right now that we've seen with lead in the drinking water in Flint.

Lindsey Smith:

It turns out there was a broad problem. It turns out the DEQ is exactly the agency responsible. We know now the same week I talked to Brad Wurfel was the same week some of the people he works with at the DEQ realized that Flint's latest lead tests weren't looking to good. The tests were bad enough that at that point they should have informed the public about the broad lead risk. That's not what happened. Instead state and city officials kept telling residents there was no lead problem in Flint's water. That this EPA report was wrong. It was written by a "rogue employee".

Al Letson:

Lindsey knew that state officials were worried about the water because she had gotten hold of a bunch of state emails last year. We're learning even more now because Governor Rick Snyder started releasing his own emails. Lindsey joins us now to bring us the latest on everything. Hey Lindsey.

Lindsey Smith:

Hey Al.

Al Letson:

Lindsey, what did we learn from the most recent release of emails?

Lindsey Smith:

 

 

 

 

[00:48:00]

We learned that if Snyder didn't know about how bad the water was in Flint it seems like everybody else around him did. His former Chief of Staff has said that they did tell Governor Snyder about their concerns. There's no like smoking gun in the email release that's proof. Still it seems pretty crazy that that many people knew, and he didn't. Also, I got to mention that the only reason we're just now getting these emails is because Snyder decided to release them. Michigan is a serious outlier in the
country when it comes to public disclosure from the governor's office. His administration and all state lawmakers are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. There's no way we could have gotten these emails before we produced the documentary.

Al Letson:

There's a great moment in your documentary when you realize what a mess the records were at Flint's public utility building. They had all these old yellowed maps and index cards lying around that were supposed to track where lead pipes were. Now Flint is improving that system, right?

Lindsey Smith:

Yeah. The University of Michigan helped go through all of these old records and sort of digitize them. Scan them and make sort of useful maps and information out of what they had. We know now that the bulk of Flint's service lines, these are lines that go from the water main to your house, are made of copper which is not unusual. There's about 4,000 homes that have lead service lines. The crazy part is that records are missing for more than 11,000 homes. Trying to figure out what those lines are made of will be tough. It sounds like it could take awhile to kind of sort that out.

Al Letson:

This has become a huge national story because of what's happened in Flint. It's also had implications for communities and their water supplies around the country. Tell us about that.

Lindsey Smith:

 

 

 

[00:50:00]

Flint should have done this mapping and this figuring out where the lead service lines were in their community 25 years ago when the federal lead and copper rule was first passed. All water systems across the country should have done this back then. That's what the federal law requires, but it's becoming very clear to me in my research that Flint is not some outlier when it comes to this. Because of Flint the US EPA this week announced that they want water systems to post this information on their websites to prove that they're following the federal rule. Show you did the work you were supposed to do 2 decades ago, you know? Some water experts tell me they'd be shocked if more than half the cities with lead service lines could do this now. At least without doing some of that major clean up work on their records that Flint has had to do.

Al Letson:

Lindsey Smith of Michigan radio, thank you for joining us.

Lindsey Smith:

Not a problem. My pleasure.

Al Letson:

The future isn't necessarily hard to see, but what you see might be hard to look at. What I mean by that is this, we can see the prospect of trouble on the horizon. Take for example Flint, Michigan. The disaster there could have been thwarted if someone had just taken action. They didn't, and here we are. It's so easy to dismiss warnings and red flags because right now we're okay. Fixing the problem, well, that might be too expensive or politically hard, or it might just inconvenience us today. Maybe the way
forward is to take a glance back.

 

 

 

[00:52:00]

Early September 2005, I remember sitting in my living room watching the aftermath of Katrina unfold. A city I loved underwater. It's people stranded. Some dying. Some dead. The utter hopelessness of the Astrodome. Watching from a safe distance I was filled with helplessness. Given the response of the nation in the days that followed the hurricane, I'd say most people felt the same way. We wanted to do something. To be a part of the solution. What could actually be done was limited and too late. No matter the action taken it wouldn't bring back the lives that were lost. Today we stand at a precipice. A place where we have to ask questions of ourselves and of
our leaders. Where decisions must be made to either ensure our future or to ignore the lessons learned from the past.

 

Neena Satija was our lead producer on today's show, and she had a lot of help from her colleagues at the Texas Tribune. Kiah Collier reported stories with Neena with editing help from Ayan Mittra and Corrie MacLaggan. We also wanted to thank ProPublica for their help creating interactive maps of the storm models which we wouldn't have been had without the use of the super computer at the Army core of engineers research and development center. Finally, Texas A&M University and Rice University's
Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disaster Center.

 

Today's production team included Katharine Mieszkowski and Julia B. Chan. Our sound design team is the wonder twins. My man, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire C-Note Mullen. Our managing editor is Amy Pyle, and Christa Scharfenberg is our head of studio. Our executive editor, Susanne Reber, edited today's show. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightening. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ethics an Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.

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