Katrina: unlearned lessons; Two years on, it's clearer than ever that this was a manmade catastrophe. Is anyone getting the message?

AuthorFreudenburg, William R.

Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans on August 29, 2005, created the costliest disaster in U.S. history, and one of the deadliest. After two years and dozens of post-mortem analyses, it makes sense to ask if we've learned anything from the experience. Sadly, our institutions seem to have had difficulty learning and applying the key lessons--even when those lessons are driven home with hurricane force.

Many media reports have discussed Katrina, first, as an example of what nature can do to people, and second, as being about the uniqueness of New Orleans--just as distinctive as Mardi Gras parades and Creole cuisine. To be fair, this isn't one of those cases where the mass media have been misquoting academics. Instead, they may have been reporting a common academic perspective a bit too accurately. The respected geographer Peirce Lewis, for example, famously proclaimed New Orleans to be an "inevitable city" in an "impossible location," and noted historian Ari Kelman of the University of California, Davis, was working in the finest traditions of geography when he described New Orleans as having an excellent "situation" (high capacity to compete with other cities) but a physical location that is "wretched." New Orleans, he decreed, "has a near-perfect situation and an almost unimaginably bad site."

Such views make it tempting to see the lessons of Katrina as being about what nature did to humans. But while New Orleans may have been the first major American city to be ravaged by natural hazards during the 21st century, it will not be the last. Vulnerability also characterizes places as different from the physical setting of New Orleans as humans can imagine--witness the tornado that recently flattened Greensburg, Kansas, or for that matter the millions of people living in California earthquake country.

At least equally importantly, though, the key lessons of Hurricane Katrina may have more to do with what humans did to nature--and how it came back to haunt us all.


Dangerous Dames

Consider the three most powerful hurricanes that have roared through New Orleans in the last half-century, all following strikingly similar tracks: Betsy, Camille, and Katrina, in 1965, 1969, and 2005, respectively (see map). By a number of measures, the two earlier storms should have caused as much or more damage to the city as Katrina, with Betsy being perhaps the most ominous. Although scientists use wind speeds as a way of measuring hurricane strength, people are most likely to be killed by a hurricane's waters. The deadliest waters are usually driven by a hurricane's "right hook," the storm surge that builds up along the right, leading edge of the storm's central eye, where the counterclockwise winds shove the ocean's waters toward land with the greatest energy and depth.

Both Camille and Betsy did create some flooding, with Betsy killing 76 Louisiana residents and flooding about 20 percent of New Orleans. Betsy also inspired what the Army Corps of Engineers called the Hurricane Protection Program, which built the levees and floodwalls that failed to protect the city from Katrina. Still, they were significantly higher and stronger than the ones in place in the 1960s. Despite the "improved" hurricane protection, Katrina flooded 80...

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