[OPE-L] Hurricane Katrina as a Social Relationship

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
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

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

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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