Stopped Clocks Tell Tale of Katrina Flooding After the levees broke in New Orleans, investigators went around looking for stopped clocks. By plotting clock times and locations, investigators are piecing together how and when parts of the city had flooded.
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Stopped Clocks Tell Tale of Katrina Flooding

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Stopped Clocks Tell Tale of Katrina Flooding

Stopped Clocks Tell Tale of Katrina Flooding

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This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

W.H. Auden once wrote a funeral poem that begins, Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. In New Orleans, the clocks did stop during the flooding in Hurricane Katrina, and now investigators are looking for clocks that can help them make a timeline of destruction. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


After Hurricane Katrina had passed through New Orleans, the sun rose and the sky cleared. It seemed the city had avoided the worse. But the water levels continued to rise; barriers broke in one place, then another, and another. Much of New Orleans filled with water. Ivor van Heerden is leading the state of Louisiana's investigation into the disaster. With all the chaos, he says, no one could pinpoint when the floodwalls broke.

Mr. IVOR VAN HEERDEN (Deputy Director, Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and Director, Center for the Study of Health Impacts of Hurricanes in Baton Rouge): So we thought if we could go from home to home and try and find these clocks and find out when they stopped, and then measure the height of the clock above the ground, we would be able to get an estimate of when the breaches actually did occur and how quickly the water rose.

KESTENBAUM: To track down the clocks, the team set up a hotline; interviewers asked around. One researcher who is mapping fatalities also chipped in.

Mr. VAN HEERDEN: So he's been going from death site to death site and getting clocks where he could at those homes.

KESTENBAUM: The researchers took pictures of the clocks where they sat. Dirty dried out clocks, small alarm clocks by the bed, on the wall, all marking the moment of destruction. Van Heerden says many of the stopped clocks were battery operated. The salty water apparently caused them to short circuit.

Mr. VAN HEERDEN: The biggest difficulty is being grandfather clocks, where it was an actual pendulum motion, and those we assume that they stopped when the water got up to the pendulum.

KESTENBAUM: So far, they have about 60 clocks, and they reveal the terrible timeline. In St. Bernard Parish, the clocks stopped around 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning as the storm surge crashed over a long stretch of earthen levees. In the neighboring Ninth Ward, the clocks ran a little longer until 7:30 or so, when a nearby wall holding back a canal gave way. Downtown flooded later. The clocks indicate the London Avenue canal broke in one spot at around 9:00, then in another place around 10:15. The 17th Street canal gave way also around 10:15, ripping houses off their foundations. The water was steady and unstoppable.

Van Heerden's team has already concluded that two of these canals failed because of design flaws, and he says the clocks give new evidence that the third canal, the industrial canal by the Ninth Ward, also broke before it should have. That's interesting because the industrial canal was one instance where it seemed as if the city's defenses were simply overwhelmed. The conventional wisdom was that floodwaters poured over the top of the canal and carved out a huge trench that undermined its walls.

But Van Heerden says the clocks show there was not time enough for that to happen.

Mr. VAN HEERDEN: It would only have overtopped for maximum of 45 minutes. And given that there was only a foot of water coming over the top of it, we felt that that wasn't enough time to scour a very large trench.

KESTENBAUM: Not everyone is sure that's right. The Army Corps of Engineers has been conducting its own investigation into why its levees failed. Ed Link is leading that effort. He says he surveyed the industrial canal, and the water over the top definitely carved out a significant ditch.

Mr. ED LINK (Army Corps of Engineers): There's very significant physical evidence that there was significant overtopping there. I'm not going to tell you how many feet or for how long, but it was very significant.

KESTENBAUM: Would you agree there were design flaws somewhere?

Mr. LINK: No. I don't know. I don't know. If there were, we will report them. The clock information is very useful. I would welcome the opportunity to incorporate that in our analysis, because it would be valuable information.

KESTENBAUM: Link says at least 150 people are working on the investigation. They're inspecting the levees and canals, testing the soil, building models and going through hundreds of boxes of documents. He says he wants the work to be definitive and says they should have more answers in a couple of months.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

INSKEEP: We've put some photographs of those stopped clocks on our website,

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