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The Unnatural Disaster of Katrina

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The sluggish emergency response to Hurricane Katrina created the appalling spectacle of thousands of Americans apparently abandoned by their government to a mounting and preventable crisis. In the weeks since, the nation’s emergency management apparatus has begun to face important questions about its obvious failings. But if we restrict our inquiries to ferreting out incompetence and inadequate planning at FEMA and its state and local counterparts, we’ll be ignoring a huge factor in the enormity of the disaster: scandalously bad environmental, energy, and flood prevention policies.

For starters, Katrina exposed the folly of the Bush administration’s policy of looking the other way in the face of massive wetlands loss. Louisiana’s coastal plain is home to one of the largest expanses of coastal wetlands in the contiguous United States, but it is being lost at a rate of 6,600 acres per year. Wetlands perform the invaluable service of absorbing and slowing storm water, but in Louisiana they’ve lost this ability after being carved up by thousands of miles of federally permitted canals and pipelines. Like his father before him, President Bush continues to promise “no net loss of wetlands,” but his policies speed their destruction, as he stubbornly refuses to support a broadly endorsed long-term project to restore Louisiana’s disappearing coast.

The various pollutants circulated around the city by floodwaters also provide damning evidence of bad policy and bad enforcement. These pollutants include oil spilled from above-ground tanks; fuel and chemicals from leaking underground tanks; sewage from flooded treatment plants; and toxic chemicals washed into flood waters from flooded buildings, lagoons, lots and individual containers. In an area subject to flooding – as we all knew New Orleans was – the neglect of these hazards is inexcusable.

Toxic waste from three separate Superfund sites is another ingredient in the toxic roux that flooded New Orleans. These sites should never have been allowed to become toxic, and once they were identified, they should have been cleaned to avoid exactly the outcome Katrina wrought. Of course, that was rendered nearly impossible by Congress and the president’s refusal to adequately fund Superfund. A tax on polluters expired in 1995; the Clinton administration was unable to push an extension through Congress; and the Bush administration adamantly refuses to burden polluting industries with any part of the bill for their messes.

A checklist of environmental policy failures must also include the administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to global warming. It is impossible to say whether even a responsible approach to climate change would have dampened Katrina’s fury. But the fact remains that scientists believe global warming will make future hurricanes more severe. The president’s policy of blocking meaningful efforts to reduce global warming emissions no doubt means that future storms will do greater damage than they would otherwise.

Besides contributing to global warming, our reliance on fossil fuels also invites the sort of disruptions in energy supplies felt across the nation after Katrina. Congress and the president have gone out of their way to reject energy efficiency legislation that would save money, make industries more competitive, and prevent pollution. Instead, the federal government offers tax incentives to wealthy oil companies to drill for more oil, and works to open up public lands to their drills. The apparent objective is to keep supplies ample and pump prices low, but nobody who’s been to a gas station lately would say that is working.

In the face of all this, conservatives have actually tried to blame environmentalists for the flooding of New Orleans, pointing to a 1977 lawsuit over an environmental impact statement. Their story is absurd, and is debunked here. Here’s the simple truth: the failure to protect New Orleans resulted from inadequate planning and building by the Army Corps of Engineers, and from the failure of the federal government to fund badly needed improvements once those limitations were recognized.

Over a period of many years, scientists had predicted that a strong storm could breach the city’s levees, and some had predicted what appears to be the precise sequence of breaches that flooded the city. Yet neither the Corps nor Congress adequately accounted for the loss of life and property that would occur if a catastrophic hurricane hit New Orleans. A hurricane protection plan implemented after 1985 by the Corps was designed to protect the city against what roughly corresponds to a fast-moving Category 3 storm. Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana/Mississippi coast as a Category 4 storm. Experts still don’t know whether the levee breaches were ultimately caused by inadequate design or substandard construction, but either way, the government’s lack of caution exposed New Orleans to a deadly blow.

These policies – on the environment, energy, and flood prevention – were all conscious and bad decisions by government. Katrina laid these problems bare, and New Orleans was left to pay the price.

Alyson Flournoy and Robert R.M. Verchick are members of the board of the Center for Progressive Reform, which recently published an extensive report on the policy choices that contributed to Katrina’s damage. Flournoy is a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Verchick is a professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans.

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