Sandy’s Power Dwarfed by Katrina’s Gutting of the Gulf

In the Rockaways section of the New York borough of Queens, residents are comparing their battered community to New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, which was all but destroyed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Everybody is talking about it,” said Terence Tubridy, 31, a restaurateur who grew up in the Broad Channel neighborhood and is helping in the clean-up. “There is such devastation, and not enough relief. I was talking to some cops and firefighters who were down in Louisiana after Katrina. They say this is far more devastating.”

It may feel that way. It isn’t true.

Because Sandy hit the most populous region and city in the U.S. on Oct. 29, more people experienced its impact first-hand than Katrina’s, a stronger storm that hit the coast of Mississippi near New Orleans. And, because New York is the center of American news media, images of the disaster quickly became ubiquitous. Still, Sandy doesn’t compare to Katrina in terms of deaths, pain or expense, said Michael Kistler, director of risk modeling at San Francisco-based Risk Management Solutions.

“The humanitarian cost of Katrina was an order of magnitude greater, in terms of loss of life, suffering and the destruction of basic public infrastructure,” he said in a phone interview.

The U.S. death toll from Sandy now stands at more than 100. In Katrina, 1,833 died.

Flooding in New York and New Jersey was disastrous. It was also isolated. Eighty-percent of New Orleans was under water, according to a 2006 Congressional report.

Seeking Shelter

Katrina almost emptied a city of 454,863 in a chaotic exodus. The city still had only 79 percent of its 2005 population by 2011, according to the U.S. Census.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said yesterday that New York must house as many as 40,000 victims in the face of forecast cold weather.

“I don’t know that anybody has taken this number of people and found housing for them overnight,” said Bloomberg, who is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. “In Katrina, a lot of people left the city and went to Houston, and many never came back. In this case, these people are staying in New York City. It’s a challenge for us and we’re working on it.”

Twice as Expensive

Estimated insured losses from Sandy are about $20 billion, according to Charles Watson, director of research for Kinetic Analysis Corp., a risk-assessment company based in Silver Spring, Maryland. That compares with $41.1 billion for Katrina, he said in a telephone interview. Eqecat Inc., also a risk modeler, estimated Sandy’s economic damage may reach $50 billion. The term includes insured losses, the potential effects of business interruptions and other costs. For Katrina, Eqecat’s economic damage figure was more than twice that, or $108 billion or $128 billion in current dollars.

The figures don’t include the $14.5 billion spent rebuilding and modernizing New Orleans’ levee system, which failed catastrophically in 2005. The protections guarding New York from rising sea water may also have to be improved. Kinetic’s Watson said he has been warning for years that the city’s 11-foot floodwalls were too low.

The U.S. Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Boston is considered a hot spot for climate-change induced sea level increases, according to a June report by the U.S. Geological Survey. Sea levels there have been rising faster than the rest of the world and at an accelerating pace, the report said, with the seas around New York now 2 inches higher than in 1990.

Cold and Dark

It’s not known yet which storm will leave customers in the dark longer.

Sandy left many more people without power, 8 million compared with 1.7 million, according to a 2006 congressional report on Katrina.

It took Mississippi Power, owned by Southern Co., 12 days to restore power after all 195,000 of its customers lost it. Entergy Corp. took 42 days, for 1.1 million customers. Some neighborhoods in New Orleans were so damaged they remained without power for months.

Katrina also affected national energy markets. While Sandy caused some refineries to shut, Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which followed three weeks later, destroyed 113 energy platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. The total natural gas production lost in the 10 months following Katrina was equivalent to 22 percent of yearly output in U.S. Gulf waters, according to the federal Department of Energy. Natural gas futures hit a record $15.78 high in December 2005.

Similar Origins

The different impacts reflected the differences between the two storms.

Both Sandy and Katrina stemmed from low-pressure troughs off the coast of Africa, according to the National Hurricane Center. Both became tropical storms in the Caribbean, then hurricanes. As bad as they were, both avoided worst-case scenarios. Sandy was no longer a hurricane when it made landfall at 8 p.m. near Atlantic City and Katrina’s strongest winds landed east of New Orleans instead of making a direct hit.

After grazing across Florida and strengthening into a Category Five hurricane -- the highest rating -- over 87 degree Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) water in the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina hit as a Category Three hurricane with winds of 127 miles per hour.

Sandy hit as a hybrid of a tropical and winter storm with winds of 80 to 90 mph.

Sandy was physically bigger than Katrina. Sandy’s tropical storm force winds spanned an area 820 miles (1,320 kilometers) wide by the time it made landfall, said Dennis Feltgen, senior meteorologist and spokesman for the Hurricane Center.

Katrina’s width was 360 miles, considered enormous at the time, according to a December 2005 center research report.

Solid Strike

Katrina’s impact was more focused, said Jeff Masters, founder of Ann Arbor Michigan-based Weather Underground, a commercial weather service.

“If you take the total energy of those two storms, Sandy actually had more kinetic energy,” Masters said. “Katrina was focused over a smaller area and it made the impact more devastating.”

Sandy’s size helped it push water from across hundreds of miles of ocean into New Jersey and New York, including the Rockaways and Staten Island, where at least 19 people died. Gauges maintained by the geological survey showed the storms pushed up water 12.9 feet at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, 10.5 feet in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and 18.9 feet in Long Branch, New Jersey, said Alex Demas, a USGS spokesman.

Towns Erased

As high as Sandy’s surge was, Katrina’s was higher.

On the Mississippi coast, where the storm hit hardest, the surge reached 27 feet, rushing inland 10 miles in some places, according to the Hurricane Center report and to Feltgen.

The winds pushed a wall of water up the shallow slope of the Gulf. The water scoured entire towns off the Mississippi coast as it rushed back out to sea.

In New Orleans, where the storm was weaker and where some areas sit eight feet below sea level, the surge was 15 to 19 feet, according to the hurricane center report.

Levees broke. The rush of rising water left residents stranded in attics and on rooftops for days as the city fell into chaos. Corpses floated through the streets.

It took six days to evacuate the city, in a rescue effort that became a national embarrassment.

“Thousands languished in heat and squalor on islands of concrete highway, in darkened stadiums, in nursing homes or on rooftops waiting for rescue, sometimes dying before help arrived,” a bipartisan congressional report on Katrina said the next year. “Tens of thousands of people were forced to wait in unspeakably horrible conditions.”

By then, New Orleans evacuees were living in all 50 states. Some never came back. Last year, New Orleans still had almost 100,000 fewer people than it did before the storm, according to the U.S. Census.

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