Katrina Exposes Fatal Flaws; Hurricane Katrina Did More Than Destroy the Gulf Coast. It Laid Bare the Failure of Government at All Levels

Article excerpt

Hurricane Katrina is the worst natural disaster to hit the United States. The storm carved a swath of destruction across the Gulf Coast that encompasses an area approximately the size of the United Kingdom. The storm's howling winds and massive storm surge, said to be upwards of 30 feet in Biloxi, Mississippi, leveled homes and businesses across the region.

At least hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives have been lost. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, many with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A major U.S. city--home to some one million people in its metro area--was devastated.

Damages have already been pegged at a staggering $125 billion by Risk Management Solutions, a California firm. This preliminary estimate may very well be revised upward as damage assessment efforts continue. The effects on the national economy as a whole will also be staggering, considering that New Orleans, strategically located at the mouth of our greatest river, is one of the nation's most vital ports. The economic costs extend beyond property damage to lost productivity and the disruption of supplies.

By itself, Katrina was a terrible natural disaster, but it wasn't just a natural disaster. It was, in fact, a litmus test for government. When Katrina came ashore, it did so in an area that was heavily dependent on government. The region's poor were dependent on government subsidies for the very basic essentials of life; the city of New Orleans in particular was dependent on government to keep it safe from floods; and people of the region were dependent on government to save their lives and protect their basic, natural liberties in the event of a natural or other disaster. When Katrina came ashore, it did more than destroy homes and properties; it also proved big government to be a colossal and dangerous failure.

This failure is most evident in New Orleans, where much of the loss of life and property is directly attributable to the failure of man-made levees under the control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal entity.

Losing the Levees

The city of New Orleans occupies a precarious position. Surrounded by water, it sits mostly below the level of both the mighty Mississippi River and the gigantic Lake Ponchartrain. Holding back these waters is one of the world's largest systems of dikes and levees. Unfortunately, the government consciously decided to limit the strength of the protective barriers. "Acceptable risks must be weighed," said National Geographic in summarizing the Army Corps of Engineers position on the building of levees, "including the statistical likelihood of catastrophic events and the possible consequences if they do occur."

It is easy to point fingers in the aftermath of disaster, but one wonders if the calculus used by the Corps in constructing the New Orleans levee system was not just a bit off. Despite the fact that New Orleans sits an average of six feet below sea level, and despite the fact that this vital port city is located in an area prone to violently damaging hurricanes (that had, in fact, flooded the city in the past), it was determined to build levees that could withstand only a Category Three hurricane. "It was fully recognized by officials that we had Category Three [hurricane] level of protection," Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the Corps, admitted to reporters shortly after New Orleans was inundated.

Moreover, as some have pointed out, and as other engineers had warned years before, it is these levees themselves that created the potential for catastrophe. In 2001, Scientific American reported that New Orleans was in grave danger because of "natural processes that have been artificially accelerated by human tinkering--leveeing rivers, draining wetlands, dredging channels and cutting canals through marshes." As a result of these attempts to control nature, the giant Mississippi Delta has been losing wild wetland areas at a breakneck pace. …