Date: Tue Sep 06 2005 - 08:21:15 EDT
The following is excerpted from a message sent to a yahoo group. The author is not identified, but it was claimed that it is a draft for a forthcoming _Counterpunch_ article. In solidarity, Jerry -------------------------------------------------------------- Is Hurricane Katrina a natural disaster or a crisis in public policy? In the wake of this devastating Hurricane, when the thousands of stranded people have finally been moved to dry ground, people will rightly question how such a disaster could occur; they will wonder how my hometown of New Orleans could simply fill up like a bowl and wash away almost our entire city. Some may point figures at government, blaming the Army Corps of Engineers for faulty construction. Others may attribute the disaster to the power of the storm that USA Today labeled the "160 mile/hr Monster." In reality a single cause cannot explain much of anything. If we wish to learn something from this nightmare, it makes sense to concentrate on those factors over which we can exert some influence: the human dimensions. And to do so, we need to evaluate the social and historical conditions leading up to the disaster. Politicians, policy-makers, academics, and committed citizens have long recognized this danger. President Carter created FEMA in 1979 to address the country's worst-case disaster scenarios, and New Orleans has been at the top of that list ever since. In 1995 the International Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations identified New Orleans as the North American city most vulnerable to global climate change, because the rising sea-level and elevating temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico intensify the frequency and power of hurricanes. The recent destruction of human life, property and one of this nation's greatest historic and cultural treasures demands a critical assessment of how authorities prepared for and confronted a hurricane strike that was universally seen as inevitable. For the crisis of New Orleans is the quagmire of unsustainability - a problem the entire nation faces. Sadly enough, after the realization of this worst-case scenario, it seems the best-case scenario might be that we pause, question and actually learn something. From 2001-2003 I worked as a research assistant and independent contractor for the Center For Hazards Assessment Response Technologies, a research center at the University of New Orleans committed to integrating social science into emergency management. Along with a number of other academics, and with the collaboration of active citizens and some dedicated policy-makers, I studied the social dynamics of flooding in southeast Louisiana. Our team of researchers drafted evacuation studies, participated in the construction of government reports, and wrote scholarly articles. While my limited experience does not represent a full insider's perspective into the larger policy-making machine of Louisiana, it hopefully conveys an appreciation for the central issues behind this catastrophic event. Media commentators treat Katrina as the culmination of the bad idea called New Orleans: a city whose precarious existence is the fault of poor site selection in 1699 by French explorers. They have ignored the more recent history of dramatic landscape alterations, which exacerbated the city's susceptibility to floods. In the last century, over 1.2 million acres of Louisiana's land have disappeared, in large part as a consequence of land-use that includes oil, gas, and timber extraction; industrial, commercial, agricultural, and residential development. These economic activities demanded erosion-causing modifications to the landscape such as canals, levees, and drainage. Historically, these wetlands provided invaluable flood protection by acting as a sponge to soak up the menace of storm surge. Now the open water, which sits where land once stood, provides fuel to the fury of hurricanes. Additionally, pavement and concrete mean that all water must eventually go back to the Gulf. In effect, this combination constitutes a hydrological contradiction to the economy southeastern Louisiana: commercial, residential, and industrial development has reduced the regions capacity to weather storms. In other words, economic growth has translated into more water, more danger, and a greater catastrophe. For this reason, flood mitigation-not to be confused with the traditional methods of flood protection, e.g., levees and pumps-largely took the form of coastal restoration. Policy-makers acknowledged the only way to save southeast Louisiana and New Orleans was to rebuild the coastal wetlands. Early initiatives began in the early 1980's, but a comprehensive framework and rational was laid out in 1998 in a plan called Coast 2050: Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana (www.lacoast.gov/Programs/2050/MainReport/report1.pdf). The plan marked a moment of inter-agency collaboration on federal, state, and local levels of government and constituted an attempt to devise a "clear vision" for all management and restoration activities concerning the Louisiana coastal zone. On a superficial level, all interest groups in the state - including big oil - supported restoration, or at least the quest for 14 billion dollars of federal funds to finance restoration construction projects. Shell Oil sponsored a public relations blitz to mobilize national support called the "America's Wetlands Campaign" www.americaswetland.com/). The president of one of the region's largest banks joined the Governor's task force to garner the necessary political will. An army of scientists and engineers carried out the research and planning for what they thought might become the largest public works projects in U.S. history. To date, over a billion dollars have been spent on actual projects, such as the fresh water diversion projects which flood areas in a controlled fashion to replenish sediments (see www.lacoast.gov). Although the effectiveness of these projects is unclear, the hypocrisy of the coastal restoration euphoria is not. Despite the many people dedicated to restoration who have worked tirelessly for this mission (e.g. Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana), unsustainable development has continued unabated and without public discourse. To compound the problem, the most critical government agency (i.e. Army Corps of Engineers) refused to correct previous mistakes that made erosion and flooding worse. By far, the most offensive example of this government hypocrisy-which also reveals a total disregard for public safety on the part of business interests-involves a canal called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO). Eyewitness accounts, hydraulic models and newspaper reports suggest this waterway brought in the storm surge that broke the levee in eastern New Orleans. This water saturated the New Orleans 9th Ward, eastern New Orleans, and St. Barnard Parish. These areas have experienced the most severe flooding, including the destruction of at least 40,000 homes. At the time of this writing, nobody knows how many people have lost their lives. The MR-GO is a 70-mile ship channel that connects the Port of New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico in a route as straight as an engineer's ruler. It began as a bad idea to promote economic growth on the Port. At the behest of the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans, locally known as the Dock Board, the Corps initiated construction in the late 1950s. Boosters for the Port claimed that the MR-GO would convert New Orleans into the next Rotterdam and encourage an "industrial renaissance" in St. Bernard Parish. These lofty ambitions never materialized: the canal excelled in generating controversy but failed to stimulate economic growth or draw much ship traffic. Although it cuts 40 miles off the trip by traversing the marshes of St. Bernard Parish, the Army Corps of Engineers' "improvement" attracted significantly less ships and cargo than the meandering Mississippi. The only growth locals witnessed occurred in the canal itself, which expanded from its original width of 500 feet to 2500 feet in some places because the wake of giant ships causes the canal's banks to collapse. Critics attributed over 40,000 acres of wetland loss to this "marsh-eating monster" and described it as a "hurricane superhighway" that would exacerbate the risk of deadly floods. In response, a number of committed individuals and organizations demanded that the Corps close the MR-GO (e.g. Coalition to Close MR-GO, Gulf Restoration Network, Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, and St. Bernard Sportsman's League). While the Corps preached the virtues restoration to Congress, it refused to correct its own deeds of environmental destruction. It ignored the public outcry; it failed to seriously take into account public safety; its policy protected not people but the economic interest of port industry and steamship companies. Officials from the Dock Board and the Corps argued that a new lock system on the Mississippi River would allow for the closure of the MR-GO. This economically and ecologically nonsensical scheme would have cost $700-800 million and would not have been complete until 2017. Critics called these locks an unjustified waste and drew attention to social and ecological impacts (see Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Wildlife Federation report on the >Army Corps of Engineers: http://www.taxpayer.net/corpswatch/). After years of fighting, nothing changed and the worst predictions of catastrophic flooding have materialized. The MR-GO represents the most egregious tension between environmental protection and public safety with the money-making imperative of unfettered business interests. Despite the widely acknowledged problem of land loss with all its consequences for flooding, government agencies have made no real attempt to mediate this conflict. With all the attention on creating new land, government shirked its responsibility to protect what still existed. More vacation homes were constructed on the shores of the barrier island and in the marshes. Against citizen protest, plans were made to extend Interstate 49 through the southeast part of the state, which would stimulate sprawl further into flood-prone areas. Paradoxically, local politicians marketed a new highway to Port Fourchon, the nation's largest oil and gas port, as a restoration initiative. Subdivisions filled wetlands on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain; suburban houses replaced that invaluable - and irreplaceable - natural sponge. Today, that lake flows through my hometown. The break in the levees that has led to the inundation of the New Orleans area constitutes more than an engineering failure. It signifies a failure of our governing institutions to represent and serve the public interest; it represents a failure in the promises of economic development to improve the quality of life in our communities. On the national level, I think it reveals a poverty of the American imagination, which refuses to dream of workable solutions to our real ecological problems, and which is mindlessly forced to seek salvation through the ostensibly free market and the promise of growth. It is impossible to say if even the most revolutionary thinking in planning and environmental management could have quelled the destruction of Katrina, but it is certain that business as usual guaranteed it.
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