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Hurricanes and Psychology: From Wall Street of the Southwest to The Big Easy

Galveston, Texas, is a deep-water port on the Gulf of Mexico. In 1900, by virtue of having the only deep-water port in the state, Galveston was the center of a very profitable cotton export trade. The city has an historic district known as The Strand. In 1900, The Strand housed many financial firms and was known as the Wall Street of the Southwest.

Galveston had a weather station that was part of the U.S. Weather Service. In 1895 one of its meteorologists, Isaac Cline, became the first person in the Weather Service to issue accurate freezing weather warnings to local farmers 24 to 36 hours in advance. Doing so had been an uphill battle for Cline. Willis L. Moore, the Chief of the Weather Bureau in 1895, had written to Cline that his scientific staff had concluded that the task of predicting freezing weather accurately for that long a period was impossible. Cline then repeated the success he had achieved with freezes to timely flood warnings.

Being a port city on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston was vulnerable to serious tropical storms, having been struck at least 10 times during the nineteenth century. It was an island city, and its peak elevation was less than 9 feet above sea level. During 1875, tidal flooding prompted calls from the community for a seawall. In 1886 these calls were renewed after a hurricane destroyed the neighboring community of Indianola, Texas, and killed over 125 people.

The call for a seawall involved an ongoing debate. In the July 15, 1891, edition of the Galveston News, Isaac Cline published a two-page article about Galveston’s vulnerability to damage from tropical storms. In the article he wrote: “It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city.” He reasoned that rising surf would flow over Galveston into the bay behind it and onto the Texas prairie, leaving the city undamaged. He predicted that the coastline would break up the incoming surf. And he added a comment, stating that hurricanes rarely struck Texas, and those that did were weak.

By the turn of the century no seawall had been built in Galveston. In September 1900 telegraph reports reached Galveston about a strong storm in the Caribbean. The Galveston County Daily News reported that the storm had moved into the Gulf of Mexico, but that nobody knew when or if it would reach land. In the early hours of September 8, water levels rose abruptly in Galveston. Of his own volition, Cline hoisted hurricane warning flags, without waiting for permission from the central office of the Weather Bureau. In doing so, he risked being dismissed from his position.

Cline also went to the shoreline itself to warn people. However, less than half the population evacuated the island. Indeed, sightseers came from Houston in order to view the dramatic surf.

For more than a century, the hurricane that struck Galveston on September 8, 1900, would stand as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. It killed between 6,000 and 8,000 people, one-sixth of Galveston’s population, and destroyed three quarters of the city. Cline lost his wife in the disaster and almost died himself.

In his report after the storm, Cline wrote: “I believe that a sea wall, which would have broken the swells, would have saved much loss of both life and property.” In his autobiography, he included the following comment: “This being my first experience in a tropical cyclone I did not foresee the magnitude of the damage which it would do.”

For the next century, residents of the gulf states and Florida witnessed many destructive hurricanes. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew set a damage record of $26.5 billion when it struck Florida and parts of Louisiana. In 2004 four hurricanes struck Florida, combining to cause $49 billion in damage and approximately 100 deaths.

The most powerful hurricane is deemed a category 5 storm, with a category 4 storm being somewhat weaker. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a category 5 storm that weakened to a category 4 storm, devastated New Orleans and other parts of the gulf coast in the most costly natural disaster in American history. The death toll exceeded 800 in Louisiana and 1,000 overall.

New Orleans had an interesting history with hurricanes consisting of floods from mid-strength storms and near misses with category 4 and 5 storms. Most of the city is below sea level and therefore was particularly vulnerable to the flood damage that a hurricane would cause. In 1965 New Orleans had a near miss with the worst of Hurricane Betsy, the first storm to cause more than $1 billion in damage in the United States, and in 1969 it had a near miss with Hurricane Camille, a category 5 storm that was the strongest ever to hit the United States. Because Camille missed the city, it caused much less damage than Hurricane Andrew.

Only after seeing the damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, did officials in New Orleans begin to fret about the risk that a category 4 or 5 hurricane would strike their city. New Orleans officials repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, beseeched the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to establish a contingency plan to prepare for the possibility that a major hurricane would strike New Orleans. In 1998, the city had another near miss, with Hurricane Georges, which lost strength when it hit land and became a category 2 storm.

The American Red Cross placed a major hurricane striking New Orleans at the top of its list of potential natural disasters in the United States. The next two disasters were earthquakes along the New Madrid, Missouri fault, and along the San Andreas fault near San Francisco.

In 2001, FEMA finally began to develop a plan for New Orleans, and working with the Army Corps of Engineers, released a report in 2002. The events that were predicted by the report turned out to be remarkably accurate, except for loss of life. The successful evacuation of a million of the city’s inhabitants before Katrina made land led the actual death toll to be much less than the 144,000 anticipated by the Red Cross. Still, tens of thousands of people would not, or could not, obey the mandatory evacuation order that preceded Katrina. Katrina breached New Orleans’ levees, and the resulting flood trapped many people in their homes. For days tens of thousands of people were stranded in both the city’s Superdome stadium and its convention center without food, water, sanitary conditions, and medical care.

In 2002 Walter Maestri, the director of Emergency Preparedness for Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans, explained that psychological reasons would lead federal government officials to underestimate the hurricane risk that New Orleans faced. Appearing on the public television program Now on September 20, 2002, he stated that despite having the risks explained to them, federal government officials were unable to grasp what the real effects would be. He suggested that these officials were preoccupied with the war on terrorism where the risks felt more real rather than hypothetical. As for himself, Maestri indicated that it was even difficult for him to imagine the French Quarter of New Orleans being totally destroyed by a hurricane. In most respects, the Now program would prove prophetic, describing as it did the chain of catastrophes that would occur, should a devastating hurricane strike New Orleans.

After the release of the 2002 report, the Army Corps of Engineers compiled a list of approximately $18 billion in projects that they deemed necessary to address New Orleans’ structural weaknesses, among them a $188 million water pump. President Bush, who viewed the expenditure on the pump as extravagant, promptly fired the chief of the Army Corps for supporting the proposal. In June 2005, the New Orleans district of the Army Corps learned that its budget for 2006 was likely to be cut by 20 percent, to $272 million.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the emergency response by the federal government was slow, much slower than it had been after Hurricane Charley struck Florida a year earlier. Walter Maestri appeared on television to express frustration for having begged and pleaded, with the response to his pleas having been “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”

A front page story in the September 6, 2005, issue of The Wall Street Journal suggested that FEMA’s response to the aftermath of Katrina was much too slow because FEMA’s focus had shifted from responding to natural disasters to preventing terrorism. After the events of September 11, 2001, FEMA had become part of the Department of Homeland Security, rather than continue as a separate agency. Describing Katrina and its aftermath in a press conference on September 4, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stated: “This is really one which I think was breathtaking in its surprise . . . I will tell you that, really, that perfect storm of combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight.”

Case Analysis Questions

  1. Identify which psychological phenomena described in the chapter played a role in the 1900 Galveston disaster.
  2. Compare the psychological traits and experiences of Isaac Cline with those of Scott McNealy, chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems.
  3. Use the concepts and examples developed in the chapter text to analyze the behavioral issues that arose in respect to hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans in 2005. Do you see any common behavioral patterns in the situations that prevailed in Galveston and New Orleans before they were devastated?

Shefrin, Website to accompany Online Learning Center

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