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Disasters and Public Policy

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.

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.

Robert Verchick expanded on the topic in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle. A New Orleans resident then and now, Verchick writes:

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. 

BP Oil Spill / The Massey Mine Disaster

CPR's Member Scholars are exploring the various issues related to two 2010 disasters -- the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico (11 lives and untold ecological harm) and the Massey Coal Mine Disaster in West Virginia (29 lives).  The Member Scholars have published several reports on the subject, and created an interactive map documenting of the BP Oil Spill. Regulatory Blowout: How Regulatory Failures Made the BP Disaster Possible, and How the System Can Be Fixed to Avoid a Recurrence (1 meg download), CPR White Paper 1007, describes multiple regulatory failures. The BP Catastrophe: When Hobbled Law and Hollow Regulation Leave Americans Unprotected (CPR White Paper 1101) elaborates on the regulatory failures and describes the unreasonable constraints placed on the victims and survivors of the BP disaster in their effort to recover damages from the mega-corporations behind the disaster. CPR also created an Interactive Map of the BP Oil Spill, offering a bird's-eye view. Read about CPR Member Scholars' work on the 2010 BP Oil Spill, including reports on the regulatory lessons of the disaster and op-eds in the LA Times, Baltimore Sun and Houston Chronicle.

In addition, CPRBlog has carried a number of entries related to both the BP and Massey mine disasters. Read posts about CPRBlog posts on the BP Spill, and CPRBlog entries on the Massey Mine Disaster.

Learn more about CPR’s work on Katrina:

 

 

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