Lessons of Katrina

From TimeIt was roughly two years ago that New Orleans spectactularly failed to cope, technologically and socially, with Hurricane Katrina. Over 1,8oo people died, neighbourhoods and livlihoods were destroyed, and the storm is estimated to have caused over $80 billion in damage.

One of the fundamental principles of successful ecological management is learning from your mistakes, and incorporating those lessons into management practices. Two recent retrospectives, one in Time and the other in Mother Jones, on what has followed the storm indicate not a lot has been learned by the various institutions responsible the ecological management of the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.

Michael Grunwald, an ecologically literate reporter for the Washington Post, wrote The Threatening Storm in Time (Aug 1 – 2007). He begins his article:

The most important thing to remember about the drowning of New Orleans is that it wasn’t a natural disaster. It was a man-made disaster, created by lousy engineering, misplaced priorities and pork-barrel politics. Katrina was not the Category 5 killer the Big Easy had always feared; it was a Category 3 storm that missed New Orleans, where it was at worst a weak 2. The city’s defenses should have withstood its surges, and if they had we never would have seen the squalor in the Superdome, the desperation on the rooftops, the shocking tableau of the Mardi Gras city underwater for weeks. We never would have heard the comment “Heckuva job, Brownie.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema) was the scapegoat, but the real culprit was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which bungled the levees that formed the city’s man-made defenses and ravaged the wetlands that once formed its natural defenses. Americans were outraged by the government’s response, but they still haven’t come to grips with the government’s responsibility for the catastrophe.

They should. Two years after Katrina, the effort to protect coastal Louisiana from storms and restore its vanishing wetlands has become one of the biggest government extravaganzas since the moon mission—and the Army Corps is running the show, with more money and power than ever. Many of the same coastal scientists and engineers who sounded alarms about the vulnerability of New Orleans long before Katrina are warning that the Army Corps is poised to repeat its mistakes—and extend them along the entire Louisiana coast. If you liked Katrina, they say, you’ll love what’s coming next.

He concludes with:

Since Katrina, New Orleans has lost more than one-third of its population, and only two of St. Bernard Parish’s 26 child-care centers have reopened. In the Lower Ninth Ward, floodwalls have been rebuilt and reinforced, but behind them stand blocks full of overgrown lots, where the remains of a gas meter or front step here or there provide the only evidence of the houses and lives washed away. “I look at this, and I think of the shortsighted people who crippled a great city,” Dashiell says. She knows that city needs better hospitals and more jobs. But first, better levees and more wetlands. Otherwise, it’s going to need an obituary.

The article is accompanied by a dynamic map of showing depopulation, water depth, and levees. It shows how entire neighbourhoods in New Orleans have been depopulated.

A second series of articles, in Mother Jones (Aug 26th, 2007), is written by John McQuaid a former writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He lays out four problems with the US Army Corps of Engineers and four challenges that they need to face:

Skewed priorities. The Corps’ traditional domestic mission is to aid navigation, and for more than a century its bread and butter has been big-ticket projects that promoted shipping: river levees, locks, dredging harbors, and channels. … Hurricane levees, by contrast, have no political constituency except the public. Their principal economic benefit is warding off total destruction, something people and politicians often don’t fully appreciate until it’s too late. …

Backward science. The Corps designed the hurricane levee system in the 1960s and never updated its basic layout, despite 40 years of progress in hurricane forecasting and computer modeling that revealed many weaknesses in those designs. …

Funding. As construction of the levees dragged on for decades, Congress and successive presidential administrations starved the system. Corps officials and Louisiana politicians protested at times, but generally went along with the cuts and shortfalls. …

Outsourcing. …. Outsourcing weakens accountability by spreading responsibility around. The flawed floodwalls, for instance, were designed by an outside firm and then approved by Corps reviewers. …

Obstacles for the future:

Abortive Reform. After Katrina, the Corps was handed the task of getting to the bottom of what went wrong with the levees—in other words, investigating itself, something that experts in government accountability say is a recipe for trouble. The investigation was vetted by outside engineers and did find serious engineering errors. But its narrow, purely technical scope may come back to haunt the agency. Investigators never attempted to answer why the mistakes were made or analyzed the institutional flaws that set the stage for them. …

The Vision Thing. Traditionally, Corps projects come about from a combination of lobbying, pork, and questionable analyses of costs and benefits. If the United States means to protect New Orleans and other vulnerable coastal areas, it needs to junk this process. The Corps needs a vision for coastal protection, one that incorporates the effects of shifting populations, global warming, and rising seas. …

Politics. Even if the Corps gets its act together, it can’t act independently. It gets its marching orders from Congress and the White House, and their priorities shift depending on who’s in power. A project may start out with a bang, only to lose momentum 5, 10, or 20 years down the line. The New Orleans levee system was begun under President Lyndon Johnson, and it was an incomplete and incongruous mess when Katrina hit 40 years later during the second Bush administration.

Nature. The Corps’ stock-in-trade for two centuries has been controlling nature—shifting river courses and diverting floods. Often, it has failed. What happens if nature becomes progressively more uncontrollable?

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