Disasters and Public Policy
BP, Massey Coal Mine, Katrina: Unnatural Disasters, Years in the Making
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.
CPR's Member Scholars have focused considerable attention on these unnatural disasters, publishing a lengthy analysis of the bad policy choices that compounded Katrina's damage within days after the storm, and helping focus the public discussion of BP's and Massey's disasters on the various policy choices that made them possible.
BP Oil Spill / The Massey Mine Disaster
Among the more significant pre-storm failures that contributed to the scope of the damage: 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 are laid bare in CPR’s groundbreaking examination of the disaster’s antecedents, Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, published in September 2005.
In the days immediately following the disaster, in an effort to defend or at least distract attention from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s manifest failure, some conservative critics charged that a late 1970s lawsuit brought by New Orleans commercial and environmental organizations had “caused” the disaster, by scuttling an Army Corps of Engineers levee plan. CPR Member Scholars quickly issued a report documenting otherwise, Broken Levees: Why They Failed. The Corps had failed to file an even remotely adequate environmental impact statement, as the law requires, and the judge in the case ordered the Corps to conduct such analysis before proceeding with construction. The Corps subsequently opted for a different design for reasons unrelated to the litigation.
Learn more about CPR’s work in the aftermath of Katrina:
- CPR's CatastropheWatch. Learn about the interplay of the civil justice and regulatory systems in the context of catastrophes, and learn about CPR's CatastropheWatch project.
- Facing Catastrophe: The Book. In June 2010, former CPR Member Scholar Robert R.M. Verchick, now an EPA official, published Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World, discussing U.S. disaster policy -- what's wrong, and what needs fixing.
- One Year After. Read Robert R.M. Verchick's op-ed on the state of New Orleans on the one-year anniversary of Katrina: "What's Next," published by the Birmingham News on August 27, 2006, "New Orleans is slowly recovering from storm's devastation," published by the Mobile Press Register on August 27, 2006, and "New Orleans still suffering from inaction," published August 28, 2006 by the Springfield (MO) News-Leader.
- CPR’s Katrina Conference. Read the agenda to "Katrina Consequences: What Has the Government Learned," a conference in New Orleans on the one-year anniversary of Katrina, jointly sponsored by CPR and the Loyola College of Law. (August 2006)
- 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)
- The Role of NEPA in Levee Construction. Read CPR's Tom McGarity's November 10, 2005 testimony to Congress on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and why it was not a barrier to levee construction in New Orleans. Or read CPR's special report, "Broken Levees: Why They Failed," debunking right-wing claims that a 1970s lawsuit over the Army Corps of Engineers failure to conduct a credible environmental impact assessment, filed by New Orleans community groups and an environmental organization, caused the flooding of New Orleans. Report authors are Donald T. Hornstein, Douglas A. Kysar, Thomas O. McGarity and Sidney A. Shapiro. (September 2005) Or read CPR board member Robert R.M. Verchick's November 17, 2005 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works on how preliminary findings on the failure of the levees should be incorporated into future plans for hurricane protection.
- Four Weeks After: Environmental Hazards. Read CPR board member Robert R.M. Verchick's September 29, 2005 testimony before the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce, "Hurricane Katrina: Assessing the Present Environmental Status."