Sept. 2, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
The whys behind the woes: Relief is just starting to make its way to the hardest-hit areas of storm-hammered New Orleans, and thousands of residents are still in peril. But already, the nationwide focus is beginning to turn to the big questions about what authorities did — or didn't do — to cope with the Katrina crisis.

Tonight's reports from NBC News detail some of the factors: how problems with the pre-storm evacuation caused bottlenecks that persisted for days later, and how the focus for emergency planning shifted away from natural disasters to terror attacks in the post-9/11 era.

It will take months if not years to unravel all the deep questions. In the meantime, the more immediate questions are troubling enough for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, whose frustration boiled up in an audio interview Thursday night. "They don't have a clue what's going on down here!" he told WWL Radio.

Here's a sampling of the smaller, somewhat more answerable questions that have come into the Cosmic Log mailbox this week:

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "The mayor of New Orleans has it right — these people don't have a clue. Check out Defense Tech today. What do you think the response to a bloody great dirty bomb would be? Any better than this?"

Defense Tech's Noah Shachtman links prominently to Slate's article on the "Department of Homeland Screw-Up," which also mentions the dirty-bomb angle. Would a dirty bomb have the same effect as a hurricane? In Katrina's case, the real crisis came after the storm had passed, when authorities did not follow through quickly enough on relief. In contrast, experts say that the physical impact of a dirty bomb would spread over just a few city blocks — and that the post-attack panic would likely be much worse than the actual attack. Come to think of it, that may well be a similarity after all, and a rule to live by for disaster response planning: The greatest danger comes as a delayed response to the event itself.

Chris Eldridge: "Given the situation of people shooting at rescue helicopters, I'm beginning to wonder if the breaches in the levees themselves was not an act of vandalism? Storm surge was supposed to flood the city by going over the levees, not by breaking them. I've heard that there were complaints about that section of levee, so perhaps just some windblown debris hit them?"

In a press advisory, a levee expert from the New Jersey Institute of Technology says the reason for the breaches may not have been what you think: "It appears that the levee failures in New Orleans were induced by subsurface seepage through the soils, not by overtopping,” said John Schuring, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT. "Given the fact that the levees were built and retrofitted many times over the years, and also given the fact that other weaknesses in the soil may exist, care must be taken when the city is dewatered to avoid another failure."

Nan Boyle: "I have not heard one person talk about a solution to the communications breakdown of line and cell phones. Has the development of an inexpensive satellite phone system been considered, or is that too inconceivable?"

Dear Sis: The satellite-telecom industry has gone through a boom and bust already, but the post-Katrina communications breakdown is already leading to new interest in satphones . When it comes to communications for first responders, ad-hoc mesh networks represent another technological frontier — as described in this article about high-tech responses to the hurricane crisis.

Kurt Setschen, Zurich, Switzerland: " Schadenfreude or not, it is very clear that global warming has some strong effects to the climate. And it is also clear that air pollution has a strong effect on the warming. So why does Bush close his eyes on this? To protect U.S. business? What will happen now with the businesses in the areas where Katrina hit? Have they been protected? Or does it mean that rebuilding the damaged areas will be a good business for others that have not been affected? Protecting the global climate cannot be done if the biggest polluter country is not cooperating."

I'm doubtful that Katrina will change the battle lines in the United States over climate change and industrial policy, but the storm's aftermath is certainly likely to bring more activists to the barricades. You can expect more dire warnings as well as more angry denials. The Real Climate Web forum does a good job of avoiding the rhetoric and focusing on the science — and if you don't agree with the conclusions, you can chime in with your own observations.

As for the rebuilding effort, it will certainly take years to bring New Orleans back to business as usual. Many of the people now taking shelter at Houston's Astrodome and elsewhere may well eventually return to the Big Easy and find jobs working on the reconstruction. But should it be business as usual in New Orleans? Just this week, House Speaker Dennis Hastert stirred up a ruckus by suggesting that "a lot of that place could be bulldozed." Hastert later retreated from those comments, but Cosmic Log correspondent Patrick Bishop states the question more tactfully:

Patrick Bishop: "Isn't it about time we started seriously rethinking the design of our cities? In the case of New Orleans, imagine how much more expeditious our current efforts to evacuate refugees would be had the city incorporated a network of canals in its design ... let the enemy be doing some of our work for us. This may be something to think about as we rebuild."

I'd love to see innovative approaches for rebuilding the heavily damaged areas of New Orleans — perhaps an urban design competition on the level of the post-9/11 Freedom Tower in New York, or even Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the city of Washington. Would it be worth starting a campaign for such a project? Let me know what you think.

Sept. 2, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
More studies of storms: Lorrin Kimberly sends in yet another suggestion for the post-Katrina reading list . In an e-mail, she raves about "Isaac's Storm" by Erik Larsen:

"As Katrina was developing last week, I was in the tense middle of a fabulous book about the devastation of the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Taken from telegraphs and memoirs of the 'weather bureau' and residents of the Gulf area, it is a wonderful account of the state of weather forecasting of the time, including perceptions of politics, the 'can do' fearless attitude of the nation, and international and local competition for commerce and recognition. The book was authored by Erik Larsen (who also wrote 'The Devil in the White City,' another historical 'non'-fiction of the Chicago World's Fair). He has done incredible research of available archives, and portrays a time and place with such reality and emotional comprehension that his work transports the reader to the Gulf shore of the dawn of the 20th century with all the technological 'advances' and difficulties of the time. It is definitely an imperative read for those interested in natural disasters, and shows how human nature repeats itself from arrogance to complacency to outright panic in defiance of the elements."

And in addition to the Katrina-related imagery from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey has now posted its own aerial before-and-after pictures of the Louisiana-Mississippi coastline, vividly showing the environmental impact of the storm.

Sept. 2, 2005 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Science and technology in the wake of the storm:
Wired.com: Sonic 'lasers' head to flood zone
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): How toxic is the flood?
Scientific American: Drowning New Orleans in 2001
National Geographic: Katrina echoed 1935 'storm of century'

Sept. 1, 2005 | Updated 7:30 p.m. ET
Before and after Katrina: Now that the storm has passed, Earth-imaging satellites are getting a better fix on the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. The QuickBird satellite, operated by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, got a clear shot of New Orleans on Wednesday and posted before-and-after views on its Web site.

Image: Before and after Superdome
Digital Globe
Before-and-after pictures of the Louisiana Superdome, taken by DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite, highlight the flooding around the site as well as damage to the dome itself. The "before" picture was taken on March 9, 2004. The "after" picture was taken Wednesday.
QuickBird's "after" view, captured from a 280-mile-high (450-kilometer-high), sun-synchronous polar orbit, shows dark floodwaters over highways and even the downtown golf course, as well as the water surrounding the Louisiana Superdome. We've created an interactive viewer that labels the landmarks and lets you switch quickly between the before and after views.

In addition to the Big Easy pictures, DigitalGlobe is offering before-and-after views of Biloxi, Miss., which was also hard-hit by the storm.

Meanwhile, the Ikonos satellite, operated by Colorado-based Space Imaging, focused in on Mobile, Ala.

During last year's Asian tsunami, before-and-after satellite views were crucial for determining the extent of the damage and identifying targets for humanitarian aid over a wide area. Along the Gulf Coast, there are obviously more aerial surveillance resources and a better emergency communications system — and the damage looks less dramatic from the air. Nevertheless, the satellite imagery plays an important role in getting the big picture of Katrina's toll.

If anything, the aerial images provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are more compelling, even though they were taken from a Cessna airplane flying at an altitude of merely 7,500 feet (2,285 meters). The pictures posted at NOAA's Web site show almost tsunami-level devastation in the Mississippi cities of Gulfport, Pascagoula, Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs.

NOAA has snapped more than 350 aerial images so far and promises to provide hundreds more.

"The NOAA imagery was acquired to support the agency’s national security and emergency response requirements," the agency says. "In addition, the imagery will be used for ongoing research efforts for testing and developing standards for airborne digital imagery."

Newsweek has created a zoomable viewer for dramatic NOAA imagery from Mississippi sites as well as New Orleans.

More sophisticated imagery, processed through different color filters, can show even more than meets the naked eye. In the hands of a skilled analyst, such pictures can reveal how far the floodwaters have risen over land, or how much damage has been done to crops.

Check out the before-and-after, multispectral false-color imagery of New Orleans from NASA's Terra satellite for an example. And keep an eye on NASA's Earth Observatory for more satellite views of the storm and its aftermath.

Sept. 1, 2005 | 3:35 p.m. ET
New views of Neptune: And now for something completely different ... the weather on the planet Neptune. The Hubble Space Telescope has sent back enough imagery to produce a movie showing cloud formations whipping around the eighth rock from the sun, as well as several of the planet's moons in action.

Video: Neptune on the move In visible light, Neptune pretty much looks like a uniformly turquoise ball, due to its obscuring methane atmosphere. But Hubble's scientists used 14 different color-filtered views to highlight subtle differences in the clouds. If you watch the accompanying time-lapse movie, you'll see streaky bands of clouds rolling around a dark globe.

"The features seen in this enhanced image must be above most of the sunlight-absorbing methane to be detectable through these special filters," the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute said in today's image advisory.

You can also spot five of Neptune's 13 known moons, including Triton, Proteus, Larissa, Despina and Galatea.

For more of Hubble's greatest hits, check out our Space Gallery.

Sept. 1, 2005 | 3:35 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
The Guardian: One side can be wrong
Discover via SpaceX: Shooting the moon
PhysOrg: 'Alien nanofiber' could zap counterfeiters
New Scientist: Intelligent design may hurry humans to Mars

Aug. 31, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Storm stirs an eco-tempest: "Schadenfreude" is one of those words that is Germany's gift to the language. The dictionary defines it as "malicious or smug pleasure taken in somebody else's misfortune" — and this week, German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin got himself into trouble for making statements that smacked too much of schadenfreude over the misfortunes spawned by Hurricane Katrina.

The trans-Atlantic tempest whirls around the idea that global climate change might be sparking stronger hurricanes — a claim that has repeatedly been raised up and pushed down in recent months.

In a newspaper column, Trittin complained that President Bush was "closing his eyes" to the perils posed by human-caused climate change. According to a report in Der Spiegel, he compared Katrina's wrath to the superstorms depicted in the Hollywood blockbuster "The Day after Tomorrow," and said a failure to do something about global warming would lead to more Katrinas in the future.
  
In a Spiegel commentary, former Clinton administration adviser Sidney Blumenthal added to the "I told you so" tenor of the reaction by recapping the well-known controversies surrounding the Bush administration's attitude toward science.

Der Spiegel says it has been inundated by angry letters from America — for example, blasting the "global-warming screeching of the left and the communists." Others wondered why the rest of the world hasn't responded to Katrina's devastation the way Americans responded to last year's far more devastating Asian earthquake and tsunami.

Of course, the world has responded — with offers of aid as well as constructive criticism and a side order of schadenfreude. Whether you're in Dubai or Davenport, you can respond as well by sending a contribution to one of the agencies listed on our "How to Help" page or the relief meta-roundup at Will Femia's "Clicked" Web log.

Aug. 31, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
Your eco-thriller reading list: In response to my roundup of hurricane-themed books that were called to mind by Katrina, Cosmic Log readers sent in their own eco-thriller recommendations.

Nathan Murray recommends "Zero Hour," a novel by Benjamin E. Miller about a hurricane that could literally rip the earth apart (at least that's what the blurb says). "I found this book new for $1 and enjoyed it," Murray says.

T. Herndon of Kings Mountain, N.C., recalls "The Wind From Nowhere" by J.G. Ballard, a weather-themed potboiler that even has a role for an NBC News reporter. The book was written in 1962, which goes to show that the eco-disaster genre didn't just start the day before yesterday.

On that same theme, Dennis McClain-Furmanski writes in from Lawton, Okla.:

"Although most of them are not specifically weather-related, the short stories in 'The Ruins of Earth,' edited by Thomas Disch, reflect the awareness and anxiety that had only recently surfaced around the time of its 1971 release — that something was going terribly wrong, and we were experiencing it. Many science-fiction heavy hitters are represented, as well as some who are only peripherally associated with science fiction through social commentary and the possible futures. It contains little hard science, as it reflects the zeitgeist of the late ’60s, a philosophical approach summed up by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as 'Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.' ...

"Besides the entertainment value, and the implicit warnings contained therein, it is instructive to see that the sort of thinking that drives concern for such things as melting glaciers and vanishing species was in full force 40 to 50 years ago. And after considering this, it is also instructive as well as disquieting to consider how willing the many were back then to say and do something, as compared to today, when things are turning out as some of the writers feared, and although we share the concern, we seem less willing or able to try to make a difference ourselves. Perhaps this will change. Perhaps seeing a historical perspective to these things will help us to decide to take action."

Aug. 31, 2005 | 8:25 p.m. ET
More scientific controversies on the Web:
Edge: Show me the science
Slate: I feel your fetus's pain
Sciencegate: Prescience sucks
Technology Review: Braving medicine's frontier

Aug. 30, 2005 | 7:35 p.m. ET
Hurricane-force fiction: If you've been touched by the horror of Hurricane Katrina, reading about fictional superstorms just might be the last thing you'd want to do. But if you're intrigued by the scientific and environmental controversy surrounding severe storms, you just might learn a thing or two from novels such as "Mother of Storms" or "Heavy Weather."

For example, it wouldn't surprise you to hear that a hurricane could pass over land, go back out to sea, pick up more energy from the warm waters and actually hit the coast again harder than ever — as Katrina did over the past week . That's exactly what happened over and over again with Hurricane Clem and its progeny in "Mother of Storms."

And you'll get plenty of lessons about the potential link between global climate change and stronger storms from tales such as "The Day After Tomorrow" (which is a novel as well as a movie) and "Forty Signs of Rain" (the first book in a Kim Stanley Robinson trilogy). But not all scientists agree there's a link to global warming. As a balancer, you might have to page through Michael Crichton's climate-skeptic novel "State of Fear."

For some observers of Katrina, the devastation is a case of life imitating art: "Why am I having flashovers to Bruce Sterling's 'Heavy Weather'?" one commentator asked on the Making Light Web log.

"Mother of Storms," John Barnes' R-rated science-fiction novel about catastrophic weather, virtual-reality porn and computer consciousness, turned up as a selection for our Cosmic Log Used Book Club two years ago — and if you're looking for other reading suggestions on fictional and real-life environmental thrillers, check out this review from EpicSFF.

On the nonfiction front, EpicSFF's recommendations include "Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution" by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. Considering Hurricane Katrina's impact on oil prices, it might be worth checking out yet another book project in which the Rocky Mountain Institute's Amory Lovins played a role: "Winning the Oil Endgame." The book received a strong recommendation just last week from Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria .

Do you have your own recommendations for scientifically instructive eco-tales, or do you have gripes about eco-themed novels that get the science wrong? Send them in, and I'll pass them along for fellow members of the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

Aug. 30, 2005 | 7:35 p.m. ET
A flag for outer space? Michael Huang writes from Australia about an idea to have space exploration enthusiasts rally round the flag ... literally. In his view, a special Space Flag could serve as a tool to publicize and symbolize the case for human spaceflight and colonization. Read his article in The Space Review, check out "The Space Flag" Web site and let me (or him) know what you think.

"I would be happy to receive feedback; either positive or negative, I don't mind," he says. "The Space Flag may remind some people of the Mars tricolor flag that is currently used by the Mars Society."

Aug. 30, 2005 | 7:35 p.m. ET
L-5 revival: NBC News space analyst James Oberg says he's made a happy discovery:

"The strange and wonderful 'L5' organization, devoted to space colonies a la Gerard O'Neill, had a high-octane newsletter, and I've just found PDF files of some of the years of issue on line. You may recognize some of the contributors. This link gets you into the archive, and you can navigate from there."

Indeed, among the L5 Society's board members from the 1970s are such past luminaries as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, as well as writers who are still with us, such as Space.com's Leonard David ... and some guy named Oberg.

Aug. 30, 2005 | 7:35 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
National Geographic: Build your own hurricane
New Scientist: Most scientific papers are probably wrong
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Requiem for an office
Send your name to Pluto (via Slashdot)

Aug. 29, 2005 | 10:45 a.m. ET
See the storm from space: As Katrina marches northward, you can follow its progress using our "Hurricane Tracker." But if you're looking for an abundance of raw satellite imagery, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deliver the goods.

NOAA has a whole Web page with links to the latest imagery as well as "loops" showing the storm's movement inland. The best views are from satellites focusing on the Gulf of Mexico, particularly the GOES imagery. You can even spot Katrina's eastward jog, which was welcome news for New Orleans.

NASA, meanwhile, has set up its own hurricane resource page, linking to imagery from the MODIS spectrometers aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites and from the QuikSCAT scatterometer satellite.

The Naval Research Laboratory is also passing along satellite views of the storm, from QuikSCAT and Aqua as well as a other weather-monitoring spacecraft, with "freshness indicators" showing how long ago the latest pictures were taken.

As time goes on, there will surely be more imagery from the international space station and other vantage points — and NASA's Earth Observatory is the place where the best satellite views eventually end up.

To delve beneath the surface and learn more about the science of hurricanes, check out our interactive tutorial on the "Birth of a Hurricane" — and stay tuned for further updates as the day goes on.

Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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