… the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers admitted responsibility for much of the destruction of New Orleans. … As the Corps’ own inquiry found, the agency committed numerous mistakes of design: Its network of pumps, walls and levees was “a system in name only”; it failed to take into account the gradual sinking of the local soil; it closed its ears when people pointed out these problems. The result was a national tragedy.
…the New Orleans disaster has illustrated the folly of building flood defenses for vulnerable low land: Some of the worst-hit areas would not have been developed in the first place if the Corps hadn’t decided to build “protections” for them. Encouraging the Army Corps of Engineers to build Category 5 defenses for all of Louisiana, including parts that are sparsely populated for good reason, would not merely cost billions that would be better spent on defending urban areas. It would encourage settlement of more flood-prone land and set the stage for the next tragedy.
The engineering that the Corps offers provides residents and residents-to-be with a false sense of security. There is an implicit belief that since we have re-worked nature as much as we have in the past, or that we have been given dominion over the Earth, that we can continue in the same vein without limit. Modern societies endeavour to isolate themselves from the vagaries of the environment. What that has given us is a higher quality of living, offset by disasters like Katrina. Hurricanes will continue to roll into Louisiana, with or without global warming; New Orleans will continue to sink; and eventually the Mississippi will transfer its discharge into the Atchafalaya.
Building buffers against nature is a sound strategy, but it should be supplemented by building into society a degree of resilience and flexibility. Part of this is the ability (strength even?) to impose limits on building in unsafe regions. This may constrain liberties, but Katrina constrained the ultimate liberty of at least 1,800 people.