Katrina: The Failures of Success

By Prugh, Thomas | World Watch, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview

Katrina: The Failures of Success


Prugh, Thomas, World Watch


The fifth hurricane of the 2005 season, dubbed Katrina, roared ashore August 29 on the southeast Louisiana coast and brushed aside the corrupted defenses protecting New Orleans, leaving nearly 2,000 dead, a prostrate city, and many shattered illusions amid the wreckage. Katrina was far from the worst storm to strike the United States, let alone the worst storm ever--and very far from the worst natural disaster (a 1931 flood in China that killed 3.7 million). Yet Katrina is a legend. Why?

For one thing, media coverage was global and vivid, yielding many horrifying images of devastation, death, and dereliction. Then there was the spectacle of the world's only hyperpower revealed as helpless by its inept response to the catastrophe, directed by a failed horse-show organizer.

Surely the legend also owes something to the fact that Katrina was an unnatural disaster made more likely by Faustian bargains--all of which seemed like good ideas at the time. First, New Orleans became a major port because the unruly Mississippi River was reengineered to become a marine superhighway for barge traffic servicing the U.S. heartland. That decades-long enterprise succeeded brilliantly, driving down shipping costs and enabling the cheap export of huge volumes of agricultural commodities and cheap import of manufacturing inputs. But it also destroyed the natural soil deposition processes that nourished the storm-protective wetlands and kept southern Louisiana from sinking further below sea level.

Second, centuries of fossil fuel use fed industrialization and the immense wealth of the U.S. economy, but have also warmed the Earth and made extreme weather events more pronounced. Yet despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change, the Bush administration has denied its significance and has obstructed efforts to address it. Third, the administration's contempt for government, expressed in its relentless drive to cut taxes, was nowhere more evident than during the Katrina crisis. The once effective Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been shuffled off to a bureaucratic backwater when the Homeland Security Department was set up. …

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