Some disasters are natural, and some are man-made. Hurricane Katrina was a violent hurricane, but it is remembered principally for the shocking failure of the government's response to the devastating effects of the storm. The BP Oil Spill and the Massey Coal Mine Disaster are entirely "unnatural," in the sense that nature played no part in creating the deadly disasters; it was merely a backdrop. What claimed lives -- 29 in the Massey mine in West Virginia and 11 in the Gulf of Mexico -- and what created an ecological nightmare in the case of BP, was the policy decisionmaking and the failed enforcement of regulations. Company officials made choices that put profit ahead of safety, policymakers made decisions that created the context for that recklessness, and regulators missed chances to enforce safety requirements. Human decisions, all.
Katrina, Ten Years Later
Among the more significant pre-storm failures that contributed to the scope of the damage in the wake of Katrina: inadequate levees and botched supervision of levee construction by the Army Corps of Engineers; wetlands policies and under-funding of restoration efforts, leading to a lack of natural barriers and absorption of floodwaters; failed toxic waste cleanup efforts that allowed toxics to ooze into floodwaters; the de-emphasizing and under-funding of the federal government’s emergency response capacity by the Bush Administration; and more. These and other bad policy choices were laid bare in CPR’s groundbreaking examination of the disaster’s antecedents, Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, published in September 2005, while the floodwaters were still receding.
A decade after the storm, much has changed in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but scars remain. In a CPR Roundtable video on the lessons learned from Katrina, CPR Member Scholars Alyson Flournoy, Sheila Foster, Robert Verchick, Robin Craig, Thomas McGarity, and Sidney Shapiro discussed the lessons learned from Katrina -- some heeded by policymakers, some not. In addition, several CPR Member Scholars posted to CPRBlog on the occasion of the anniversary. Read posts by McGarity, Shapiro, and Joe Tomain.
New Orleans was swamped by an engineering failure, not just a storm, and other cities are waiting in line. Katrina was a monster, but much of its rage had dissipated by the time it reached land. When the levees broke, the storm was within that system's design specifications. To its credit, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the failings in its design and construction and has toiled since to build a supersized complex of ramparts, gates and pumps as sophisticated as any flood-control project in the world.
But other time bombs tick across the country. An estimated 100,000 miles of levees protect tens of millions of households, from Sacramento to Miami to New York City, with nearly 1 million of those households in Houston. Yet we know surprisingly little about their fitness. In response to Katrina, the federal government is developing an inventory of all federal and many nonfederal levees. Of those rated so far, only 9 percent have been found to be in "acceptable" condition. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's levees a D- and estimated that repairs would cost more than $100 billion.
The Federal Role. Read Robert R.M. Verchick's February 7, 2006 op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, "A Federal Obligation," on the Bush Administration's approach to rebuilding New Orleans.
Policy Failures Made Katrina Worse. Read CPR's "Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," by Member Scholars of the Center for Progressive Reform. The report describes the failed environmental, energy, and disaster prevention and management policies that exacerbated Katrina's damage, leading to a breathtaking example of environmental injustice. Or read the executive summary to "Unnatural Disaster." (CPR White Paper 512, September 2005)